Crues draw some comfort with Heatley goal and £700k in bank
Crusaders 1 Ol Ljubljana 1
So, that's that then. Irish League involvement in European competition is over for another year.
Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glenavon all had their moments in the Europa League before being knocked out and last night Crusaders were eliminated from the same competition by Olimpija Ljubljana from Slovenia.
Defeated 5-1 away from home in the first leg, the Crues drew 1-1 second time around on their own patch with the outstanding Paul Heatley equalising an early effort from Nik Kapun. It meant a 6-2 aggregate exit for Stephen Baxter's side.
Prior to that, the Crues were defeated twice in the Champions League by impressive Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets. They may not have won any matches, but ending up with around £700,000 in the bank for competing in both competitions is quite a consolation.
The Crues have made well over £1million in the last few years thanks to European football. It's that type of finance that has helped them go full-time and sign quality players like Rory Patterson. That deal was announced ahead of last night's clash at Seaview.
When Jordan Owens suffered a hamstring injury against Ludogorets last month, Crues manager Baxter wisely started looking at his striking options, not just as a short-term replacement for the club's record scorer but also to help fill the gap created by Gavin Whyte's departure to Oxford given the number of goals he created and scored when the Shore Road men won the title last season - their third league success in four years.
Coleraine turned down a Crusaders bid for Jamie McGonigle, so Baxter snapped up Derry City front man Patterson instead on a one-year deal.
The 34-year-old, who has won five Northern Ireland caps and previously played for Coleraine and Linfield in the Irish League, could play in his new side's Danske Bank Premiership opener at home to Ards on Monday.
He was introduced to the crowd before last night's encounter with the Slovenians, who a few days before had sacked boss Ilija Stolica after just five games in charge. Aleksandar Linta took charge at Seaview knowing it would take a miracle for the Crues to overturn a 5-1 deficit.
The miracle didn't happen, though Crusaders put up a strong showing despite going behind to a brilliant strike from just outside the box courtesy of Kapun on 15 minutes. Prior to that, the excellent Declan Caddell had a diving header saved and after it Kyle Owens, playing up front instead of his normal defensive position, nodded over the crossbar. Heatley fired wide and tested Olimpija Ljubljana goalkeeper Nejc Vidmar before finally hitting the net on 41 minutes after Matthew Snoddy had set him up. It was a deserved goal for Heatley, in electric form. At the other end, Sean O'Neill was alert and captain Colin Coates led by example.
On 44 minutes, Caddell and Dino Stiglec were involved in a confrontation with both booked when the latter was fortunate not to be dismissed. The second half didn't reach the excitement levels of the first with few chances at either end.