CLIFTONVILLE 0 CRUSADERS 4
Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter lapped up a Christmas feast as Cliftonville were swept aside in a demolition derby at Solitude.
Ahead at half-time through Jordan Owens, the Crues were buoyed by Sean O’Neill’s penalty save before Howard Beverland, Gavin Whyte and Declan Caddell all netted to bring the Reds’ six-game winning run to an emphatic end.
Indeed, it could and should have been more than 4-0 with Whyte missing a late open net, while Michael Carvill and Jordan Forsythe each hit the woodwork as the Crues extended their advantage at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership to seven points.
“The manner of the performance was top drawer,” said Baxter.
“We outworked them and that gave us the right to play. We hustled Cliftonville and stopped them passing the ball.
“We scored four, but also hit the woodwork and created other chances. To do what we did against a top team in such a big game was really satisfying.”
After Carvill had clipped the bar with a free-kick, the Crues pulled ahead when Owens nipped in to convert just before the interval, but it was arguably what happens in the minutes immediately after the turnaround that proved decisive in this north Belfast derby duel.
First, O’Neill saved Stephen Garrett’s spot-kick – awarded after Billy Joe Burns was deemed to have handled by referee Arnold Hunter – and then Michael Gault produced an exceptional challenge to thwart Davy McDaid just as the Reds striker looked poised to level matters.
Shortly afterwards, it was 2-0 as Beverland pounced to double the champions’ advantage from close range with Whyte scampering through to make it 3-0 before Caddell put the icing on the festive cake with a delightful smash from distance.
Whyte came close to making it 5-0 but, after rounding goalkeeper Peter Burke, found the angle too difficult to convert from, with Jordan Forsythe striking the post with a speculative attempt from long range.
Things went from bad to worse for Cliftonville when Jay Donnelly was shown a straight red card for a needless lunge on Craig McClean, with home boss Gerard Lyttle left to reflect on a truly miserable day at the office at the end of a tough week.
“Crusaders battered us after the second goal, let’s be honest about it,” he said.
“There are fine margins in matches. If we score the penalty or Davy takes his chance, I believe it’s a different game but the fact is we didn’t score either and the Crues were deserving winners.
“I wasn’t too harsh on the players after the game because, to be honest, our preparations were terrible this week. The squad’s been hit by a bug, the boys have been sick and big Jason McGuinness’ wife was nearly ringing an ambulance for him, he was that bad.
“It’s not an excuse but, at the same time, I can’t be going in and having a go at people when I know the circumstances of what’s been going on.”
CLIFTONVILLE: Burke, McGovern, Ives, McGuinness, Curran, Knowles, McDaid, Garrett, M Donnelly, Catney, Cosgrove. Subs: J Mooney, Winchester, J Donnelly (Catney, 57 mins), Lavery (M Donnelly, 57 mins), A Donnelly.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Burns, Beverland, Gault, Carvill, Caddell, Forsythe, McClean, Owens, Heatley, Whute. Subs: Lowry, Mitchell (Burns, 90 mins), Dougherty, Clarke (Whyte, 87 mins), Snoddy (Caddell, 82 mins).
REFEREE: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge)