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Crusaders look all Whyte: Seven up for Stephen Baxter's braves

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Whyte knight: Jordan Owens and Diarmuid O’Carroll hail Crusaders’ hat-trick hero Gavin Whyte

Whyte knight: Jordan Owens and Diarmuid O’Carroll hail Crusaders’ hat-trick hero Gavin Whyte

Whyte knight: Jordan Owens and Diarmuid O’Carroll hail Crusaders’ hat-trick hero Gavin Whyte

Defenders won't look back on this game with fierce pride but Crusaders won't give a jot about that.

That's another game chalked off as they close in on the club's first league title since 1997 and since their goal difference is 21 superior to Linfield's, six wins from their final eight clashes should see them cross the line first.

The pressure is on and many of the players haven't been this close to the promised land before but it's an opportunity for boys such as teenager Gavin Whyte to become men.

Whyte netted his first hat-trick for the Crues in this goal feast as the visitors hit a magnificent seven to thrash Glenavon and go six points clear of the Blues at the summit. Stephen Baxter's side have one hand on the Gibson Cup but they won't be content until both hands caress that famous piece of silverware.

Crusaders' whizzkid from the Markets must let his football to the talking amid conversations about winning championships and a potential switch to the full-time game.

"I just want to focus on my football," said Whyte, who has 10 goals for the season. "Playing with the players here is a great learning experience. You have guys like Paul Heatley who you can learn from in training and take it into the match.

"I'm not trying to think about winning the league. The players aren't talking about it, we are more interested in beating whoever is in front of us. People can say it's ours to lose but we won't listen to that, we have to concentrate on our performances.

"We can't say Linfield, Portadown and Cliftonville are out of the title race. They are all great teams but there is still plenty of room for improvement from us and we'll be disappointed with the three goals we conceded. We will work on that and at the minute we have the firepower to hurt teams and hopefully it stays that way."

Heatley's close-range finish in the seventh minute settled nerves among the visitors but the Crues did enjoy a let off on 13 minutes when Kevin Braniff screwed his shot wide. After Colin Coates had a goal ruled out for offside on 20 minutes, the game became a scrappy affair on a bumpy surface but it exploded into life in the 41st minute.

Braniff's free-kick picked out Ciaran Martyn but his header produced a stunning save from keeper Sean O'Neill. However, Rhys Marshall was in the right place to tap home the rebound.

But good teams react to setbacks and Crusaders' response was instant. Within a minute their lead was restored and it was a magnificent goal. Heatley's precise cross from the left wing found Whyte, who located the net with a sweet volley.

The second half sparked a goal rush and it was the Crues who were purring after four goals and one sending off within an explosive 10-minute spell.

In the 46th minute, Marshall was shown a red card for bringing down Heatley in the box and Diarmuid O'Carroll smashed home the spot-kick. On 52 minutes it was 4-1 as Jordan Owens fired home from 10 yards after Whyte's unselfish lay off.

In the 55th minute the Crues defence then nodded off, allowing Martyn to head home after William Murphy's deep free-kick. But seconds later Whyte raced onto Heatley's pass and cleverly lobbed the ball over Alan Blayney into the net.

Surprisingly, there were 10 minutes without a goal but normal service was resumed when Braniff converted from the penalty spot after Timmy Adamson had handled Martyn's shot.

The league leaders endured a few uncomfortable moments but when Whyte smashed in his hat-trick in the 73rd minute it was game over. Two minutes into injury time, Heatley completed the scoring to leave Lurgan Blues boss Gary Hamilton reflecting on some shocking rearguard action.

"I though both teams were brutal defensively," he said. "But when we lost a player and they went 3-1 ahead it was always going to be difficult to turn it around given the form they are in. They have great pace with Heatley and Whyte and they will possibly be champions.

"Jordan Owens, Whyte and Heatley are clicking and when they are giving you goals you always have a chance. They deserved to win the game but I felt the sending off was harsh as we had covering defenders. Big decisions change games."

Crusaders will face Derry City in a testimonial for Chris Morrow at Seaview tonight (7.45pm).

It's an opportunity for fans to pay tribute to the club's long-serving midfielder, who has spent much of this season in the treatment room.

Belfast Telegraph