Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter rues poor finale

Cliftonville's George McMullan lifts the League Cup
Cliftonville's George McMullan lifts the League Cup

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter summed it up perfectly with one word - ‘brutal’.

What a pity this Wasp Solutions League Cup final fell flat on its face. It had everything going for it. A sell-out crowd, great build-up, live Sky Sports television coverage and, the ‘Pope’ even made an appearance in the jam-packed grandstand!

Sadly, the players failed to deliver. Yes, the penalty shoot-out at the finish made it a nerve-tingling finale for both sets of supporters, but the reality is, it was 120 minutes of sheer drivel.

There was a lot at stake, of course. But when the two outstanding performers on view were the oldest players on the pitch - Crusaders’ Paul Leeman and Ronan Scannel, of Cliftonville - it really says it all.

Yes, the straight-taking Baxter got it spot on - it was a shocker.

Both goalkeepers, Cliftonville’s Conor Devlin and his opposite number, Sean O’Neill, stood up when it mattered in regular time, making a number of notable staves.

But when Crues’ skipper Colin Coates’ first penalty was clutched by Devlin, it was the sign of things to come, even though little George McMullan then rapped his spot kick against the crossbar.

Gary McCutcheon shot the Crues into the lead, only for Joe Gormley to level. Nathan Hanley then blasted in what was the best of the bunch, but that was as good as it got for Baxter’s boys.

Devlin then saved from Jordan Owens before Ciaran Caldwell shot the Reds in front. When Craig McClean stepped up to keep Crusaders in it, his body language suggested he was far from confident and he duly hoofed his effort against a post

“It was a nothing game; it was brutal, but there had to be a winner and a loser,” moaned Baxter. “They scored their penalties, and we didn’t. We’ve previously enjoyed victory in the manner, the Setanta Cup final for instance - so you take it when that happens.

“I don’t think Cliftonville will be walking away and saying ‘what a performance’ or ‘that was fantastic’. I really don’t think Tommy (Breslin) will be watching it a lot on Sky Plus!

“Certainly, they (Cliftonville) should enjoy the moment, but the bottom line is, it was a terrible game of football.

“I’ve already told the players the cup final is now gone, confined to the history books,” he added. “We’ve got to get back to the bread and butter in the league with a difficult game against Ballinamallard coming up next week.

“We’ve been running at this from July. We’ve been on a good run of games. We’ve worked incredibly hard, but I’m beginning to see one or two tired legs.

“We require a new freshness about us. The squad is now going to be utilised with one or two of our younger players being called on. And, a few of our senior guys who haven’t been in the team must now stand up and be counted.”

Cliftonville: Devlin, McGovern, Scannell, Johnston, McMullan, Donnelly (O’Carroll 98), Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Murray (Curran 67), Boyce (Caldwell 114). Subs: Seydak, Doherty.

Penalty scorers: Gormley, O’Carroll, Caldwell. Missed: McMullan.

Crusaders: O’Neill, McClean, Robinson, Leeman, Magowan (McCutcheon 75), Coates, McAllister (Adamson 46), Morrow, Owens, Heatley (Hanley 87), Caddell. Subs: Smith, Watson.

Penalty scorers: McCutcheon, Hanley. Missed: Coates, Owens, McClean.

Referee: R Hetherington (Dungannon).