By Stewart Robson
Crusaders are the champions once again!
After a breath-taking afternoon on the final day of the season, the Hatchetmen came from a goal down to beat Ballymena United at the Showgrounds and send the travelling mass of red and black fans into hysterics. It was truly memorable.
The thousands of fans who made the trip were in full voice from the outset. Buses and coaches, cars and trains brought the red and black army to encourage the boys over the line and boy did they do just that on a sun-soaked Spring day in north Antrim.
Crusaders started the game well and certainly looked like the more comfortable team but as the first half progressed, tinges of nervousness started to creep into their play. Passes weren’t meeting the feet or heads of teammates and Ballymena began to push further into the Crues half. Sighs and groans were echoing around the camp.
However, it was the victorious captain Colin Coates who had the first chance of the game, leaping well and heading just over the bar from a corner. Superstar striker Jordan Owens was next to have an attempt but he too rose and just missed the back of the net. Owens had another opportunity not long after, taking the ball well on his chest but one touch too many allowed it to escape from his feet.
Ballymena’s Leroy Millar had the next best opportunity to break the deadlock, but his strike veered to the right of the goal and went narrowly wide. The great Dane Brian Jensen then tipped an effort round the post for a corner as Ballymena started to frustrate the Crues after their good opening efforts.
Arguably the best chance of the half fell to Paul Heatley. The number 22 took the ball down brilliantly on his chest and with a clear sight of goal, found himself in a one-on-one situation with Sky Blues’ keeper Ross Glendinning. Heatley drilled the ball towards the goal and rippled the side of the net. Crues fans thought it was in, but the tension only grew as the ball rolled along the tarmac behind the net.
The second contender for chance of the half fell to Ballymena’s Jim Ervin. However, the newly crowned Ulster Footballer of the Year, Gavin Whyte, came to the champions’ rescue by making a last-ditched attempt to block the ball on the line. Heart-racing stuff, but it stayed 0-0.
Two further chances fell to Heatley and Coates respectively just before the break but as the half drew to a close, it wasn’t going as planned for the Hatchetmen. 45 minutes full of chances but the overall play seemed to lack the urgency that the fans and Stephen Baxter were calling for.
Michael Carvill and Heatley looked threatening in the beginning of the second half. Heatly volleyed a left footed effort but it sailed over the crossbar. Carvill struck wide and hit the side netting. Fans were wondering if a goal was ever going to come.
It did. Just not at the right end.
Brian Jensen raced out to the edge of the 18-yard-box to try and intimidate Cathair Friel, but the Ballymena player kept his cool and lobbed the ball home straight over the goalkeeping stalwart. There was a deafening silence on one side of the ground. Disbelief that a third title in four seasons might just have been slipping away.
Crusaders knew that things needed to change gear and to relentlessly pummel the Sky Blues in their own half. That they did.
Paul Heatley added another two chances to his list in a game where he could have scored a plethora while Jordan Forsythe also shot wide moments later. The grunts were growing but there was still an overarching sense of belief that things were about to take a turn for the better.
In a goalmouth scramble, the ball hit Ballymena keeper Glendinning in the face, presenting an opportunity to midfield maestro Philip Lowry. Lowry stuck a leg out and the ball hit the back of the net. The red and black army oozed ecstasy that was served with a side of relief. The muted celebrations of the players signalled that more work needed to be done.
After a wonder-save from Brian Jensen to deny Ballymena from going back into the lead, it was time for super-sub David Cushley to make his mark on Crusaders’ history, four minutes from the final whistle.
Controlling the ball well, Cushley took one look at the goal. His left leg drew back like the string of a bow and from it came confirmation of Crusaders’ championship victory. The ball flew into the bottom corner of the net and supporters young and old grabbed each other by the lapels of their jackets, by their scarves and by shirts and bathed in championship fever. Absolute euphoria.
News that Coleraine had been unable to find a breakthrough at Glenavon reverberated around the ground and sealed a momentous Premiership victory that will live long in the memory.
An ecstatic Stephen Baxter told BBC Sport NI: "Nothing was going to be given to us and you saw what it meant to Ballymena when they scored but I felt we earned the victory.
"We came at them with everything we had in the last 10 or 15 minutes, and this group of players deserve it.
"Coleraine have also been magnificent and it is difficult for someone to have to lose it on the final day - we had to endure it last year.
"Of the three championships we have won, this was the best one, for me."
What a game. What a season. Bathe in the glory. The Crues are the champions once again.