Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter admitted his much-changed team had to show ‘great patience and resilience’ to book their spot in the quarter-finals of the BetMcLean League at Seaview on Tuesday night.
The Shore Road boys were pushed to the wire by Ballinamallard United – a team struggling at the foot of the Bluefin Sport Championship table.
In fact, the Irish League champions looked like nose-diving out of the tournament as they trailed to a Michael Glynn strike with only nine minutes remaining.
But big Kyle Owens for once upstaged his brother Jordan by heading the equaliser before Matthew Snoddy struck a last-minute beauty to help edge the Crues through to the last four.
Baxter made a staggering nine changes to the side that defeated Cliftonville in similar circumstances last Friday night, but admitted the lads he brought in needed some serious game time.
“Some of the boys haven’t been playing much football, so I thought it was the right time to give them a game,” he said. “These lads are top players . . . they needed minutes on the pitch.
“They can train all day, but nothing beats 90 minutes of competitive action – you don’t get that with the Under-20’s.
“So, it was a new team out there. There was also going to be a little bit or ring rustiness about the performance, albeit they are very good players. It was a matter of getting them up to speed of what we do and moving the ball around quickly.
“I thought we passed the ball really well at times in the first half, but it just wasn’t as quick as I would have liked.
Baxter did credit Harry McConkey’s team for producing a well-drilled showing.
He added: “These games are always awkward. Ballinamallard worked their socks off and they threw everything at it. They had a great shape about them. They had three at the back and they tucked the two full-backs in . . . they were difficult to break down.
“They shut down the pitch and allowed us to come at them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a great deal of penetration in the game – hence, there was hardly any action in the first half.
“We talked at half-time about stretching them a lot more. And, to be fair, I thought we passed the ball really well in the second half.
“We were undone on one occasion which was disappointing, but I felt overall, we did all the pressing before the chances did arrive that duly won it.
“So, it was a case of having to be patient waiting for our opportunities to arrive.
“I made a few changes in the second half, just to try and get the win – and it worked for us.
“It wasn’t the type of performance you’ll go home and say ‘I want wait to replay that one on television again’. But we got job done and that was the main thing. It was a wonderful bit of quality by Matthew to win it.”
It is hard to believe that Harry McConkey’s side are rooted stuck firmly at the bottom of their table, but the manager is hoping that the performance will help kick-start their season.
“This is a team that is very much in its infancy,” he said. “It’s been a bit hectic from the start of the season.
“We have been trying to bleed young players into a very difficult league. I know people were tipping us to be tanked at Seaview – and rightly so. But I was so proud of the lads – every one of them.
“They put in a tremendous amount of every and they tried to play the right way.
“We moved the ball well to try to unsettle what was a very powerful Crusaders team. In the end, we didn’t have the resources what they had to use from the bench.
“When you have boys like Rory Patterson coming on for the last 20 minutes, I think tells its own story.
“I asked the boys to embrace the challenge and to try and learn as much as they could from the experience – and I think they done that.”