Ballymena United 1, Crusaders 4
CRUSADERS exacted revenge for last season's title ending defeat with an emphatic opening day victory over 10 man Ballymena United.
The Sky Blues had twice beaten Crusaders at the Showgrounds last season and David Jeffrey was braced for a backlash after his side all but ended their title hopes in the penultimate game of last season.
However, the home side looked on course for another upset when Matthew Shevlin bundled the ball over the line to give the Braidmen the lead on 54 minutes.
Crusaders got back on terms six minutes later when man of the match, Paul Heatley fired into the net. before United defender, Kyle Owens was given his marching orders for a foul on the striekr just 60 seconds later.
And Heatley completed the turnaround with a sublime strike on the volley on 78 minutes.
The game was all but over at that stage but goals from skipper, Colin Coates and a 90th minute header from substitute Jordan Forsythe completed the rout.
It was a feisty opening to the game as both sides jostled for possession but it the visitors who settled quickest. Philip Lowry spread the play wide to the right to Gavin Whyte who drilled his shot towards goal from just inside the penalty area and it was poked just wide of the post by Heatley from an offside position
Crusaders were warming to the occasion and when Sean Ward split the United defence with a sublime throughball, Whyte ran in behind but he poked his shot safely into the hands of Ross Glendinning.
The home side responded on 18 minutes with their first shot on target and it was a blistering strike from Leroy Millar from 25 yards which needed to be turned over the crossbar by Brian Jensen.
Match official, Keith Kennedy called a halt to proceedings on 21 minutes following an altercation between Howard Beverland and Kevin Braniff with both players issued a warning.
Crusaders threatened again on 24 minutes when Lowry sent Jordan Owens scampering clear and his pull-back was screwed wide by Declan Caddell.
Rodney Brown's inswinging corner kick was headed into the side netting at the back post by a towering header from Owens on the half hour mark.
Ballymena also had their chances from set-pieces as Kyle Owens' downward header from Anthony Kane's corner was saved well by Jensen as half-time approached.
Billy Joe Burns then sent his left footed strike from just outside the penalty area wide of the target before Owens cushioned header was gathered by Glendenning as the Hatchet men finished on top.
Crusaders came so close to opening the scoring five minutes after the break when Owens found the lively Whyte on the edge of the box and his low strike went across goal and narrowly wide of the far post.
However, it was the Sky Blues who found the net on 56 minutes when Conor McCloskey's long throw-in from the right was headed towards goal by Owens and Shevlin got the crucial touch to bundle the ball over the line.
The game suddenly exploded into life and United's lead lasted just six minutes as Heatley fired Crusaders level when the ball broke to him inside the area.
It got worse for the Sky Blues just 60 seconds later as Owens was shown a straight red for tripping Heatley who was clean through on goal.
Heatley then clipped the top of the crossbar for Crusaders on 72 minutes with a deft chip towards goal as the Seaview men went for the winner.
And it was Heatley who put Crusaders ahead with 12 minutes to go in stunning fashion as he volleyed home with a sweet left foot finish from 20 yards.
Three minutes later Crusaders skipper Coates got onto the end of Rodney Brown's header to give the visitors a two goal cushion from close range.
And substitute, Forsythe finished the job in stoppage time with another close range header to get Crusaders' league campaign off to a flyer.
Ballymena United - Ross Glendinning: Jim Ervin, Kyle Owens, Jonathan Flynn, Leroy Millar (Emmet Friars 72); Conor McCloskey, Michael Gault, Anthony Kane,Joseph McKinney; Matthew Shevlin (Cathair Friel 86), Kevin Braniff; Subs Not Used - Conor Brennan, Gary Thompson, Francis McCaffrey.
Crusaders - Brian Jensen; Billy Joe Burns, Colin Coates, Howard Beverland, Rodney Brown; Gavin Whyte, Sean Ward (Jordan Forsythe 60), Philip Lowry, Paul Heatley; Declan Caddell; Jordan Owens (David Cushley 90); Subs Not Used - Mark McChrystal,. Michael Carvill, Matthew Snoddy.
Referee - Keith Kennedy.