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Gavin Arthur's Crusaders suffer a knockout blow in the cup


Race is on: Knockbreda’s Curtis Black and David Johnston chase Crusaders Reserves’ Ross Holden

Race is on: Knockbreda’s Curtis Black and David Johnston chase Crusaders Reserves’ Ross Holden

Race is on: Knockbreda’s Curtis Black and David Johnston chase Crusaders Reserves’ Ross Holden

The harsh reality in football is that, more often than not, it is actually the winning and not the taking part that tends to count, but on this occasion, the huge smile on defeated Crusaders Reserves manager Gavin Arthur's face said it all.

He and his players could have felt sorry for themselves after conceding the decisive goal of this hard-fought Intermediate Cup third round clash with only 15 seconds of extra time separating them from a penalty shootout befitting such a close contest.

However, Arthur's overriding emotion at the final whistle was pride, combined with the knowledge that his plucky young side had given their more experienced counterparts a testing afternoon.

The former PSNI manager, who took over the Crusaders second string at the start of this season, remarked: "I am over the moon, really proud of the boys today. I had a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds up against a top end Championship One club out there - so now I know where we are.

"Their attitude was brilliant. It didn't matter whether they were 1-0 down, drawing 1-1, or 2-1 down at the end - they weren't frightened to play football the way I know they can."

The visitors certainly started brightly, with Francis Rice heading over the bar from a Stephen Cockroft corner when he probably should have hit the target, and Kyle Dillon lashing over from another Cockroft ball, rather than bringing it under his control.

Knockbreda striker Jordan Hughes did his best to give Crusaders keeper Geoff McKinty an early test with a low curling shot, but he just about gathered it to his grasp.

Moments later, Aaron Boyd got a header onto a Curtis Black cross, producing a superb reflex save from McKinty, who tipped it onto the post for it to then rebound back into his grateful arms.

Crusaders had their goalkeeper to thank for tipping away an otherwise goal-bound Matty Johnston strike from just inside the box.

Sure enough, on 22 minutes, Knockbreda broke the deadlock, courtesy of a superb bending pass from Matty Johnston, which caught the opponents' back-line napping, to pick out Jordan Hughes, who had no trouble poking it past the advancing McKinty.

The home side could easily have followed up with a second, just two minutes later, but Robbie McAnulty slid in with a timely challenge on Curtis Black at the back post.

Plaudits once again went to the Crusaders keeper in the 31st minute after he dived to deny Matty Johnston, who had been sent clean through on goal by Thomas Lambe.

This game was still very much in the balance, with the sense that a second goal, either way, could be crucial.

That moment arrived in the 38th minute - and it was a moment to savour. Crusaders striker Stephen Cockroft collected a loose ball from 30 yards out before shaping up to produce the cleanest strike into the top left hand corner that many local supporters will see this season.

It was a strike worthy of deciding a match, but on this occasion, it was a mere equaliser. Knockbreda still felt they could walk out as half time leaders, but Crues keeper McKinty was instrumental yet again, first punching to safety from a dangerous swerving Hughes free kick, then rushing off his line to parry from Black.

Knockbreda were more noticeably subdued in the second spell, with the young reserves doing most of the pressing, although the hosts will have kicked themselves for not taking the lead on the hour mark, when Boyd's angled header from a Black corner was cleared off the line by McAnulty, having already been tipped on by the outstanding McKinty.

Crusaders themselves will be just as frustrated that it wasn't they who were celebrating the lead after Kyle Dillon nudged the ball over the line on the rebound from a Michael O'Hanlon header off the bar, only to be ruled offside. At this point, there were only 10 minutes of normal time to go.

With the sides level after 90 minutes, the game entered extra time, and with both sides still apparently well-matched, penalties seemed an inevitability… until, in the dying seconds, Knockbreda substitute Paul Young fed the ball in to Boyd, who, with back to goal, swivelled and drove home the winner.

"I would say sometimes you have to be dogged, and that's what we were today," admitted Knockbreda boss Raymond Bell afterwards.

"Big credit to Crusaders - they have a lot of good young players there. And while I thought we should have been 4-0 up at half time, their goalkeeper did really well, and you have to be composed to take your chances.

"We have been hit with injuries this season, but they are starting to come back now, so hopefully we can get ourselves up the table and as far as possible in this competition."

Man of the match: Geoff McKinty (Crusaders Reserves). On the losing side, but didn’t deserve to be after this terrific offering.

Moment of the match: An easy choice. Stephen Cockroft’s equalising goal for Crusaders Reserves.

Save of the match: McKinty’s point-blank save from Matty Johnston early in the first half set the tone for what was to follow from this eye-catching goalkeeper.

Blooper of the match: The standard from both teams was high, with few individual errors, other than the odd misplaced pass.

Belfast Telegraph