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Baxter happy to settle for share of the spoils as Kennedy's late equaliser sees north Belfast derby end in draw

 

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Rory Hale and Rodney Brown contest the ball

Rory Hale and Rodney Brown contest the ball

INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

Rory Hale and Rodney Brown contest the ball

It was the only show in town and Ben Kennedy's 93rd-minute equaliser proved that even a fortnight's delay can't stop the north Belfast Boxing Day derby from delivering the goods.

An historic fixture laced with drama, intrigue and controversy lived up to its billing as Crusaders rescued a last-gasp point when the substitute's cross crept in at the far post to deny Cliftonville a battling win.

The hosts had got off to an horrific start when Jamie McGonigle slotted the Crues in front from the penalty spot with just three minutes on the clock, but Rory Hale's almost inevitable equaliser against his former employers swung the momentum in Cliftonville's favour and they looked to be on course for full points when Chris Hegarty sliced into his own net - only for Kennedy to intervene with 30 seconds left.

It was a stunning conclusion to an absorbing contest that sent the Danske Bank Premiership into its mid-season hibernation on a high note. The only thing missing was the raucous derby day crowd that would have lapped up every second of this blood and thunder affair.

Even outside of the goals, there were plenty of talking points, with Cliftonville feeling that both Declan Caddell and Jordan Owens were lucky not to see red from referee Tim Marshall following altercations with Conor McDermott and Liam Bagnall respectively, while the visitors argued play should have been stopped in the build-up to the home side's second goal when Adam Lecky went down injured.

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter cut a relieved figure at the finish after seeing his men come within a whisker of extending the away-day blues that have haunted their campaign.

"We just kept coming and coming and coming," was how he summed up the finale.

"We kept throwing the dice and changed it around at the end with three at the back and hoped we could keep knocking on the door with a ball in at the end that would work. We did that, got the goal and secured a point which obviously pleases you in the end - we'd have liked all three, but we'll have to settle for one."

Opposite number Paddy McLaughlin admitted that the outcome felt like a defeat for his side, whose defensive lapses at either end of the contest will weigh heavily on his mind throughout football's lockdown.

"We've made two mistakes in the game, one in the first minute and one in the last minute, but everything in between was excellent," he said. "The players worked their socks off and matched the physical battle Crusaders brought. We played a lot of good football too, especially early in the second half when we had them on the rack and could have put the game to bed, so to concede an equaliser in the last attack feels like a defeat."

The Crues penalty was awarded when Jamie Harney tangled with Paul Heatley; the Cliftonville defender twice appearing favourite to win the ball but opting instead for physicality which sent the visiting frontman sprawling and allowed McGonigle to convert from the spot past Reds debutant keeper Aaron McCarey.

It was all square after 42 minutes when good work from Ryan Curran threaded Conor McMenamin through on goal and, though Gerard Doherty repelled his low drive, Hale was perfectly placed to stroke the rebound over the line, despite the best efforts of Rodney Brown.

Hegarty sliced a McDermott cross into his own net early in the second half and that looked to have settled the issue until the depths of injury-time, when substitute Ryan O'Reilly's missed clearance eventually saw the ball fall for David Cushley, who touched possession into the path of Kennedy and when his delivery into the middle found no takers, the ball nestled in the far corner.

Though they had differing views on the outcome, both bosses agreed on the rationale behind football's Covid-enforced shutdown, with McLaughlin (below) - who clocks up some of the highest mileage in the Irish League, travelling to Solitude from his Derry home four and five times a week - saying: "Football can't come at the cost of anybody's health. Every time I or anybody else makes a journey to training or a match, you're taking a risk.

"Cases in general are through the roof at the minute and we've seen it having an effect on football clubs recently."

Baxter added: "We have to be wise around this. We're happy to keep playing football but we could bring this virus back to elderly parents or grandparents, so we all have to play our part in keeping everybody safe."

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