Late Cushley strike gives Crusaders edge as fight for top goes to wire
Crusaders 1 Coleraine 1
Super-sub David Cushley last night hammered home a priceless late equaliser to keep Crusaders in pole position at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership.
The battle of the Titans lived up to expectation at a sell-out Seaview where Stephen Baxter's troops again bared their title teeth in an epic tussle with Coleraine.
Jamie McGonigle's second half penalty - his 19th goal of the season - looked good enough to secure the three points that would have taken Oran Kearney's men to the top, until Cushley was sprung from the substitutes' bench and within 60 seconds had the Shore Road venue rocking.
Incredibly, it was the Crues' 100th league goal of the campaign. They became the first team in 78 years to hit the ton, succeeding Glentoran.
The Crues still have to taste defeat over the Bannsiders this season, but they'll be more than happy with the outcome.
But there is every indication that this race for the Gibson Cup will go right to the wire. The gritty Bannsiders are now undefeated for an incredible 23 games, dating back to November 18.
The bumper crowd had to wait 14 minutes for the first attempt at goal, but Josh Carson's speculative 35-yard drive flashed over the top.
It sparked the Crues into action at the other end when Gavin Whyte tried his luck with a dipper that Chris Johns was relieved to see clear his crossbar.
Eoin Bradley's muscular presence was making life difficult for rugged defender Colin Coates and, in one clever lay-off, he sent his strike partner Jamie McGonigle roving into the box, but he failed to pull the trigger, allowing Howard Beverland to get in with a telling block.
It was tense, edgy stuff, with both side failing to find the form that has paired them at the top of the table for most of the season.
Paul Heatley was next to try his luck from distance after he was hauled down from behind by Ciaron Harkin, but the little striker's 30-yard free kick finished up on the nearby Shore Road.
Bradley was then presented with a decent opportunity following a long punt forward from goalkeeper Chris Johns.
Again, a moment's hesitation cost him dearly as Coates produced a wonderful saving tackle to rescue the situation.
The Bannsiders came within inches of forging into the lead seconds before the break when the back-tracking Heatley sent the over-lapping Lyndon Kane flying. Carson lined up the free kick from wide on the right which then whistled inches past the post, much to the relief of Brian Jensen.
If the first half was tetchy and untidy, the second 45 started at a whirlwind pace.
In a lightning break, Darren McCauley threaded a great pass into the path of Carson whose low drive was gobbled up at the base of the post by Jensen.
But it was the Crues who were almost in front on 55 minutes when skipper Colin Coates soared high into the night air to connect with a Heatley corner kick only for little Lyndon Kane to pop up on the line to head clear.
And they went close again with Heatley managing to get a flick to Matthew Snoddy's cross that Johns saved at the second attempt. The pendulum swung in Coleraine's favour with that penalty award on 68 minutes after Bradley went down under a challenge from Coates.
McGonigle was the coolest man in the ground, stepping up to send Jensen the wrong way from the spot.
It could have been even better for the Bannsiders following another eye-catching move involving substitute Stephen Dooley and McCauley, which resulted in McGonigle volleying just over the crossbar, when he should really have hit the back of the net.
The Crues were far from finished. Whyte burst into action with a dazzling, jinking solo dash and when he fired hard and low across the face of the goal, Philip Lowry was only inches away from turning the ball home.
With the clock ticking down, substitute Jordan Forsythe produced a monster throw-in from the left, leaving Darren Murray, just on for Snoddy, with a free header, but Johns tided up without any fuss.
But the Crues were not to be denied.
Super-sub Cushley, who was barely on the pitch for 60 seconds, sent the North Belfast venue into raptures when he poked home the equaliser after Lowry's effort was blocked on the line.
Murray almost won it for the home team with a vicious curling drive from distance that Johns just managed go get a finger tip to, deflecting the ball over the crossbar.
And they still had one big gift of a chance when - with only seconds remaining - Kane's poor header sold his goalkeeper short and when the ball fell to Heatley, he managed to screw his 20-yard drive wide.
CRUSADERS: Jensen, Burns, Coates, Beverland, Ward, Lowry, Caddell (Murray 76), Snoddy (Forsythe 68), Heatley, Whyte, Owens (Cushley 83).
Unused subs: O'Neill, Glackin.
COLERAINE: Johns, Kane, Harkin, McCauley (Burns 78), Bradley, Carson (Dooley 63), McConaghie, Lyons, O'Donnell, Traynor, McGonigle.
Unused subs: Douglas, Smith, Parkhill.
Man of the match: Ciaron Harkin
Match rating: 8/10
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast).