Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter yesterday saluted goal hero Johnny McMurray after his team’s last gasp Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup win at Windsor Park – but also admitted it was a ‘brutal performance’.
The north Belfast boys were staring down the barrel of defeat as Robbie Weir’s early own goal looked like giving Ballymena United their first Cup success since 1989.
But, with the game deep into injury time, Josh Robinson somehow plundered an equaliser to send the red and black army into raptures.
The drama continued right until the final seconds of extra-time when Johnny McMurray hit a sensational winner, which was the signal for pandemonium to break out. The entire entourage in the Crusaders dug-out spilled on to the pitch to celebrate, while every one of the Ballymena players sunk to their knees – including manager David Jeffrey.
“The heart tablets will have to be increased,” smiled Baxter. “The manner of the performance was brutal – we were rubbish for an hour.
“When you have your senior players coming to you at the final whistle, saying ‘I was rubbish today gaffer, sorry I let you down’. It says a little bit about how were played.
“We didn’t pass the ball well for the first hour, we didn’t control the ball well; we looked nervous and edgy. That happens in big Cup finals.
“The pressure was on us as we were favourites, although I tried to play it down in the media for the past two weeks. The reality is we carried that tag.
“Sometimes when you are the underdog, it can play to your favour. Ballymena knocked us out of our stride, it would be fair to say.
“We were a yard off it, we missed the first ball and the second ball. It took us an hour to settle. But in the last 15 minutes of real time, we were magnificent. We had killed them, regards the juice left in the tank. For the last 30 minutes, we looked the only team that looked like scoring.”
Crusaders had a let-off on eight minutes when Josh Kelly’s delicious pass sent skipper Leroy Millar free, but his shot was superbly deflected for a corner kick by Jonny Tuffey.
But seconds later the shot-stopper was picking the ball out of the net when Andy McGrory’s corner was sliced into this own net by Weir.
The Crues almost levelled on 27 minutes only for Jordan Williamson to get down smartly to his left to beat away a free-kick from Ben Kennedy after Adam Lecky had been floored by Ross Redman.
United had a let-off 11 minutes prior to the interval. Tuffey’s monster clearance was flicked on by Lecky to Paul Heatley, whose shot took a deflection off the boot of Redman and the ball inched over the top.
Then, just before the break, an uncharacteristic error from Billy Joe Burns let in David Parkhouse and, although he managed to get past Tuffey, the embarrassed defender got back to make amends.
It was United who asked all the questions after the restart, with McGrory firing a 25-yard free-kick wide before Ryan Waide scooped a Steven McCullough cross over the top.
Crusaders retaliated, with Philip Lowry picking the pocket of McGrory to send Heatley into the box and his full-blooded drive had Williamson at full stretch.
Williamson again established himself again with a smart save low to his left to deny Robinson, but the Crusaders half of the ground erupted deep into injury time.
Realising their Cup dream was evaporating, in one last desperate effort, Heatley whipped in a corner from the left which was flicked on by goalkeeper Tuffey for Robinson to poke home at the back post.
If that was bad, the way United lost it was nothing short of cruel. With 120 minutes played, Caddell lofted one last hopeful ball into the box. Although it was partially cleared by McCullough, the ball fell to McMurray, who blasted home a low volley.
Baxter believes his boys’ never-say-die attitude stood them in good stead.
He added: “To leave it to the last kick of the ball in both instances was hard on the heart. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter of how you do it, it’s all about getting the job done.
“The record books will show we won the game 2-1 in the years to come – the job is done, it’s complete. I told the boys it will be the squad that wins the football match, and that’s how it panned out.
“The lads that came off the bench were immense. I asked Johnny (McMurray) to do a job he is not familiar with and he did it exceptionally well, while Jordan Owens rolled back the years when he came on.
“It was fitting that Johnny latches on to that loose ball and buries it in the bottom corner – it’s what Johnny does, he has natural goal scoring ability.
“Mind you, he skied two from 30-yards over the bar earlier on when I was screaming for him to take a touch. But when you get inside the box, when you are closer to goal, that’s when you make it count – he did that so well.”