Crusaders should have beaten Inverness in Irn Bru semi: Baxter
Inverness CT 3 Crusaders 2
Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter insisted this team did the Irish League proud in last night's dramatic Irn Bru Scottish Cup semi-final tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The Shore Road boys recovered after shipping three first half goals, to bounce back with a Paul Heatley double - and they had the Scottish full-timers hanging on at the finish.
Goals from George Oakley, Joe Chalmers and Jake Mulraney had the home fans dancing at half time, but shrewd Baxter introduced Jordan Owens and Gavin Whyte for the second half and they helped transform the Crues.
In fact, only for a number of incredible saves from Caley goalkeeper Mark Ridgers, it could well have been Baxter's team taking their place in the final against Dumbarton.
Both sides finished with only 10 men as Thistle's Brad McKay took the walk of shame along with Declan Caddell, who was dismissed in the dying seconds.
"We probably should have won that match 6-4. We got into some great goal scoring opportunities time after time," said Baxter. "I'm disappointed with the quality of goals we conceded in the first half, it certainly was uncharacteristic of us.
"It gave us a bit of a mountain to climb, but we said at half-time we weren't going down without a fight. We changed the formation a little bit and we gave it a real go.
"We had so many chances to score it was unreal. Had we been a little bit more careful in front of goal, we would be in the final.
"But we've enjoyed our run in the competition. It was a little bit different mixing it with full time opposition. We certainly didn't let ourselves down in any shape or form.
"We are very proud of our performance here tonight."
The Crues got off to the worst possible start, conceding a goal in the first minute when Oakley was allowed time and space to side-foot a low effort past Brian Jensen following a piercing run by Liam Polworth.
Disaster struck again on 13 minutes. Oakley turned provider this time, whipping in a great cross from the right for was powerfully headed home by Chalmers.
It could have been even worse for the Crues as just three minutes later a great ball in from McKay was turned past the post by Oakley.
Caley Thistle continued to be wasteful in front of goal. The impressive Polworth took off on another penetrating dash through the middle before picking out Chalmers, who drilled his shot over the top.
It was almost over as a contest on 31 minutes. Mulraney's darting dash on the right created the chance for Oakley, but Jensen pulled off a wonderful save, tipping the ball over the top.
But that man Mulraney sent the home team in at the interval with a three-goal cushion when he picked up a pass from Polworth before expertly drilling past Jensen.
The Crues reappeared for the second half with all guns blazing. Owens and Whyte replaced the ineffective Jordan Forsythe and Jamie Glackin and they made an immediate impact.
Darren Murray forced Ridgers into his first meaningful save with a low shot before Owens headed over a great chance following a cross from Billy Joe Burns.
The rampaging defender then took off on a solo dash down the right, but had his low shot saved at the base of the post by Ridgers.
Thistle were certainly rocked back on their heels.
Chalmers' attempted back pass was then gobbled up by Murray, but he could only blast his effort against the legs of the now over-worked shot stopper.
The pressure finally told on 57 minutes. Whyte's low shot took a deflection off Donaldson but Heatley still managed to touch home.
Crusaders' hopes of salvaging the game received another boost when McKay was dismissed on 63 minutes - he picked up a yellow card only three minutes earlier.
The Irish League boys were right back in it with 12 minutes remaining. Owens' looping pass found Heatley galloping down the left and his shot low and hard past Ridgers.
It was the signal for the Crues to pile forward. Ridgers saved from Whyte before the big keeper got a hand to Murray's drive with Owens just failing to bundle the rebound over the line.
And, deep into injury time, Burns whipped in a great cross to the far past for skipper Colin Coates to power his header into the side netting.
The game ended in controversy when Caddell picked up two quick yellow cards after hauling down the dangerous Polworth inside the box.
When the dust finally settled, Iain Vigurs rolled the spot kick wide, but the miss mattered little in the end as the hosts held on to progress.
INVERNESS: Ridgers, McKay, Warren, Donaldson, Calder, Mulraney (Elbouzedi, 79 mins), Polworth, Vigurs, Chalmers, Oakley, Bell (Seedorf, 65 mins). Unused subs: Esson, Baird, D Mackay, J Brown, Harper.
Crusaders: Jensen, Burns, Beverland, Coates, McClean, Forsythe (Owens, 46 mins), Caddell, Glackin (Whyte, 46 mins), Snoddy (Lowry, 77 mins), Heatley, Murray. Unused subs: O'Neill, Carvill, Cushley, Suarez.
Referee: Bryn Markham-Jones (Wales)
Man of the match: Paul Heatley
Match rating: 9/10