Paul Heatley was the hero as Crusaders claimed three north Belfast derby points at a sodden Solitude on Friday.
The winger struck with 60 minutes on the clock for the only goal of a contest which never really bubbled above anything more than tepid.
Visiting keeper Sean O’Neill got down well to deny Davy McDaid with just nine minutes on the clock and it wasn’t long before Cliftonville were forced into an early change when Jude Winchester was thrust into the action as Barry Johnston departed the scene on a stretcher with a suspected broken kneecap.
Neither side really stamped any kind of authority on proceedings throughout the first period but the Crues’ twin threats of Gavin Whyte and Heatley always looked threatening on either flank and it was the former who almost delivered the breakthrough but, after scampering his way past Jaimie McGovern, was thwarted by an inch-perfect challenge from Ronan Scannell.
The opening goal arrived with 60 minutes on the clock; Whyte cutting the ball back for Heatley to stroke home the Crues’ first shot on target – and they almost made it 2-0 with their second, only for Conor Devlin to get in the way of a fierce Jordan Owens strike.
Cliftonville’s best chances of levelling fell in the final 13 minutes but, on both occasions, O’Neill was perfectly placed to deal with the danger – first grasping an overhead attempt by McDaid before narrowing the angle to deny Winchester and snuff out home hopes of a late reprieve.
“We knew the importance of defending well and we did that,” said visiting boss Stephen Baxter.
“Richard Clarke and Declan Caddell competed superbly in the centre of the mark and our defenders did brilliantly to shackle Joe Gormley and Davy McDaid. Our goalkeeper made terrific saves at key times and I felt we managed things very well indeed.
“It’s only three points, I’ve told the players that, but it’s three points on the back of a couple of decent results and we’ve put a good little run together.”
Opposite number Tommy Breslin, meanwhile, said: “I felt we limited Crusaders but we made wrong decisions at the other end.
“We had opportunities to shoot or passes to pick but just took the wrong choice too many times.”
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Scannell, Johnston, Curran, McDaid, M Donnelly, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Cosgrove. Subs: Flynn, McMullan (Curran, 82 mins), Seydak, Winchester (Johnston, 12 mins), J Donnelly (M Donnelly, 69 mins).
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Burns, Coates, McClean, Caddell, Clarke, Robinson, Whyte, Heatley, Adamson, Owens. Subs: Hanley, Snoddy (Whyte, 83 mins), Cockroft, Friars, O’Carroll (Adamson, 90 mins).
REFEREE: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)