Crusaders have one hand on league trophy after beating Cliftonville

Crusaders Paul Heatley celebrates scoring against Cliftonville
Crusaders Paul Heatley celebrates scoring against Cliftonville

CLIFTONVILLE 0 CRUSADERS 1

Crusaders are Champions in all but name.

Nine points clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership with three matches to go, and with a goal difference 27 better than nearest challengers Linfield, the Shore Road side didn’t even attempt to hide their glee at the end of today’s victory over Cliftonville – they’re uncatchable and they know it.

Paul Heatley netted the only goal of a fiery contest as the Crues roared to a vital derby day success which, coupled with the Blues’ defeat, means it’s game over in the race for the title.

The visitors, who were looking to bounce back from a first League defeat in four months following their Easter Tuesday setback against Portadown, welcomed Paul Heatley back to action after the flying winger’s wedding put paid to his involvement in that Shamrock Park contest.

With Gavin Whyte deployed on the opposite flank and twin targets Jordan Owens and Diarmuid O’Carroll up front, Crues boss Stephen Baxter was evidently determined to see his men get back on track at the earliest possible juncture – and, boosted by the fact that their last Premiership loss sparked a seven-match winning run, arrived at Solitude with their Gibson Cup destiny firmly in their own hands.

As for the outgoing Champions, Cliftonville made four changes to the line-up which fell to its own Mid-Ulster disappointment in midweek.

The Reds’ 5-0 hammering by Glenavon threatened to derail their bid to secure Europa League football and, with minimal error for margin as the campaign enters its final furlong, boss Tommy Breslin welcomed Jaimie McGovern, Ronan Scannell, George McMullan and Johnny McMurray back to his starting panel.

It was, however, that man Heatley who would make the breakthrough when, with just seven minutes on the clock, he produced a composed finish from a narrow angle after Jordan Owens had touched possession in his direction.

Gavin Whyte and Owens each saw opportunities to stretch the Crues’ lead come and go before Cliftonville began to exert a degree of control on proceedings as the first-half progressed; McMullan denied by Sean O’Neill and Tomas Cosgrove connecting with both the side netting and the crossbar.

That same woodwork prevented Owens from making it 2-0 after the interval, while keeper Peter Cherrie denied Josh Robinson as well as a brace of Heatley efforts.