Crusaders 0 Cliftonville 0
Crusaders’ title chances finally hit the buffers in a night to forget at Seaview.
The Shore Road team’s dismal run of results was cranked up even further in his lifeless north Belfast derby.
Still wobbling from their controversial Irish Cup demise at Glentoran at the weekend – a result that ended their reign as holders – the Crues again flattered to deceive.
They now trail Linfield by a whopping 10 points in the Danske Bank Premiership table and, with only eight games remaining, they are realistically playing for runners-up place – and a slot in European football.
February was a costly month for the Crues, having lost two league games – to Glenavon and Linfield. They were also defeated in the final of the League Cup, while their interest in the Irish Cup went down the tubes at the Oval at the weekend.
Another anemic showing against their most fierce rivals suggested their troubles are far from over.
Manager Stephen Baxter was forced to watch last night’s game from the grandstand, the legacy of his dismissal AFTER the final whistle on Saturday.
Goalkeeper Gerard Doherty and midfielder Jordan Forsythe were also missing as they also took the walk of shame. Only Billy Joe Burns, Jordan Owens, Rodney Brown and Paul Heatley survived the chop following the east Belfast debacle.
Reds boss Paddy McLaughlin made one change from the team that defeated Dungannon Swifts in the cup, Garry Breen replacing young Donal Rocks.
The draw also meant that the Reds are also 10 points adrift of David Healy’s Blues. Their focus is now on the Irish Cup – a trophy they haven’t paraded for an astonishing 41 years.
Perhaps, it was no surprise it was the Reds who had the first sniff of goal with Michael McCrudden finding Conor McMenamin, who tried his luck with a speculative drive from distance that flashed over the top.
Joe Gormley then let fly from wide on the right – an ambitious effort that lobbed high in toe crowed behind the goal.
And, they had the ball in the net on 17 minutes when Aaron Donnelly’s corner kick fell invitingly for Jamie Harney, who poked home, but the Reds’ defender had strayed into an offside position.
The home team at last threatened at the other end, but had to wait until the 35th minute when the strong-running Heatley was hauled down by Harney.
Heatley floated in the free-kick which was met by Chris Hegarty, but Richard Brush got down smartly to paw clear at the base of the post.
From the resulting corner kick, big Jordan Owens climbed high above everyone else to meet Heatley’s cross only the see his header fizz over the crossbar.
Then, seven minutes later Paul McElroy cut in from the right before unleashing a vicious low shot that again had Brush at full strength and, once again, got a strong hand to the effort.
Crusaders came within inches of breaking the deadlock on 54 minutes. Michael Ruddy whipped in a cross from the left that was met by Owens, but his thumping header crashed off a post.
But the Reds responded in a positive manner and the usually lethal Gormley missed a sitter just on the hour.
Harney’s searching pass picked out the big striker. His first touch was immaculate, but he could only screw the second past the post with only O’Neill to beat.
In one last desperate push, the Crues almost won it on 89 minutes when only for Hegarty’s header of graze the post following Heatley’s free kick.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Burns (Dummingan 73), Hegarty, Lowry, Hale, Caddell, Ruddy, Owens, Brown, Heatley, McElroy (McGonigle 82).
Unused subs: Shields, Cushley, O’Rourke, Thompson, McGinley.
CLIFTONVILLE: Brush, McDermott, Breen, Harney, C Curran (Rocks 80), R Curran, McCrudden (Maguire 89), Doherty, Gormley, McMenamin, Donnelly.
Unused subs: Dunne, Foster, Bagnall, Casey, McCurry.
REFEREE: Raymond Crangle.
Man of the match: Richard Brush.
Match rating 4/10.