Revenge is a dish best served cold and Crusaders had to wait almost four whole months to get even with Ballymena United who all but ended their three-in-a-row title challenge last season.
Stephen Baxter admitted he’s been plotting his revenge over the Sky Blues - who won twice against his troops at the Showgrounds last year - since the 2017/18 Premiership fixtures were released last June.
The Crusaders boss has watched every one of Ballymena’s pre-season games as he attempted to find a way to make a statement on the opening day of the new Danske Bank Premiership as the Hatchet men set their sights on reclaiming the title.
It was an early chance to ‘right the wrongs’ of a hugely frustrating head-to-head record against David Jeffrey’s side, particularly that 3-0 loss last April in the penultimate game of the campaign which saw their title tilt bite the dust. And the Seaview men exacted revenge in some style with an emphatic opening day victory over their hosts on Friday night in Ballymena.
Jeffrey was braced for a backlash and while it took a while to materialise, it came in the shape of four second half goals.
The home side looked on course for another upset when Matthew Shevlin bundled the ball over the line to give the Braidmen the lead on 54 minutes.
However, Crusaders got back on terms six minutes later when the diminutive Paul Heatley fired into the net before United defender, Kyle Owens was given his marching orders for a foul on the striker just 60 seconds later. That dismissal opened up space for the dangerous attacking duo of Heatley and Gavin Whyte who ran riot against a Ballymena defence all at sea.
And man of the match, Heatley completed the turnaround with a sublime strike on the volley on 78 minutes worthy of deciding any match.
The game was all but over at that stage but goals from skipper, Colin Coates, who made up for his mistake in the lead up to Ballymena’s opener, and a 90th minute header from substitute Jordan Forsythe completed the rout. It was a long time coming but Baxter was delighted to come away from the Showgrounds with three points on the board and having delivered an early statement of intent to their title rivals.
“We came here last year twice and lost so we were very determined to right that wrong,” he admitted. “We worked very, very hard tactically towards this game in pre-season.
“We did what we had to do very professionally and had a fantastic shape around the team. It’s a nice start and this was the only game which really captured my attention for the past six weeks since the draw. We watched Ballymena in every pre-season friendly to make sure we got the result we got tonight.
“Ballymena were the only team to beat us twice. We knew it would be a tough opening game.”
It was a cagey opening to the game and while Ballymena came closest in the first half when a blistering strike from Leroy Millar from 25 yards needed to be turned over the crossbar by Brian Jensen.
But while Baxter’s troops enjoyed the best of the chances throughout, it wasn’t until the sending off of Ballymena centre half, Owens that they opened up their hosts at will.
“We limited Ballymena to kicking the ball long,” added Baxter. “I felt very comfortable around the game at half-time and then second half we conceded a goal at the start of the second half with people not picking up properly and that’s very disappointing.
“Once we made a very quick adjustment and changed our shape then we just drove at the heart of them and penetrated them in the right areas and did that particularly well. The last 30 minutes we were top drawer.
“Four goals was incredibly fair. We missed four chances in the first half and they had one shot where the keeper has tipped it over. Outside of that they had no efforts on goal and didn’t open us up in any shape or form.
“ The amount of chances we had it could gave been as cricket score.”