Crusaders are crowned champions

Crusaders striker Jordan Owens.
Crusaders striker Jordan Owens.

Ballymena United 1-2 Crusaders

FORMER Ballymena United old boy David Cushley was Crusaders hero as they claimed their third Premiership title under Stephen Baxter's management.

In truth while they looked nervous in the first half and never really got going until substitute Cushley came onto the pitch, they have had a fantastic campaign and ran out deserved winners.

Crusaders started on the front foot and on two minutes Colin Coates' looping header from Paul Heatley's right wing corner landed on top of the net.

The visitors had a glorious chance to settle the nerves on eight minutes when Jordan Owens brought the ball down inside the six yard, but instead of shooting he tried to cut inside past Andrew Burns, the young defender did well to nick the ball away and the clear-cut chance was gone.

United had a chance themselves on 15 minutes as Leroy Millar's left footed strike from 20 yards had to be superbly tipped around the post by Crues keeper Brian Jensen.

A minute later the Belfast men missed a sitter as Heatley got in behind the United defence, to latch onto Sean Ward's long ball but with only Ross Glendinning to beat, the winger blasted wide.

Crues continued to dominate things in the opening quarter and they went close again on 26 minutes but Gavin Whyte's close range strike, which had Glendinning beaten, was cleared off the line by Jim Ervin.

At the other end Joe McKinney's long-range effort edged inches wide of goal, before Heatley seen his 20 yard strike whistle just past Glendinning's right hand post.

Crues, who looked very nervous in the first half had another good chance on 56 minutes as Michael Carville's strike from a tight angle, hit the side netting.

Incredibly the home side took the lead on 60 minutes as Friel got in behind the Crues defence to rqce onto Kevin Braniff's through ball and with Jensen rushing off his goal-line, the ex-Limavady United man diverted the ball over the keeper and into the empty net.

Friel's goal ended United's run of 9 hour and 45 minutes without a league goal.

Just after the hour mark a flick on by Coates found an unmarked Carville, but his strike was blocked by Burns and then moments later Heatley blasted wide when well placed inside the box.

United were inches away from doubling the lead when that man Friel got in behind the Crues defence, but his low drive was parried away by Jensen and Francis McCaffrey was unable to turn home the loose ball.

On 72 minutes another counter attack by United nearly resulted in a second but Millar's shot from the left hand edge of the box, sailed just wide.

Crues drew level five minutes later after a goalkeeping error by Glendinning, when he fumbled Cushley's initial effort and the alert Philip Lowry was on hand to turn home the loose ball with his weaker left foot.

A Billy Joe Burns cross on 82 minutes found Owens at the back post, but the big striker's tame header was easily gathered by Glendinning.

Soon after a top draw save by Jensen kept his side in the game when he somehow kept out Braniff's close range powerful header.

Moments later that United old boy Cushley made no mistake blasting home from 20 yards, after Ward's clever pass had picked out the midfielder, to spark wild celebrations amongst the large travelling support.

Ballymena United: Glendinning, Flynn, Friel, Braniff, Burns (McCloskey 81), Balmer, Ervin, Millar, McCaffrey (Faulkner 85), McKinney, Quigley.

Crusaders: Jensen, Burns, Beverland, Coates, Ward; Carvill (Cushley 66) Forsythe, Lowry; Heatley, Owens, Whyte.

Referee: Tim Marshall.