Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte grabbed the important goals to book Crusaders a BetMcLean League Cup semi-final slot, but it was referee Raymond Hetherington who took centre-stage.
The Dungannon official was instrumental in the game’s flashpoint incident midway through the second half when Crusaders’ David Cushley clashed with Mark Stafford.
Hetherington originally showed a red card to Cushley, but after consulting with his officials on the touchline, he rescinded the decision. Instead, he issued Stafford with the RED card and Cushley stayed on.
It was billed as a battle of the giants and it didn’t disappoint. It was the Crues’ third win of the season over David Healy’s team.
Both teams went for the jugular right from the off with opposing centre backs Colin Coates and Stafford, booked in the first two minutes - it set the tone for the remainder of the half.
Andy Waterworth held his head in frustration after only four minutes when he got on the end of an Andy Mitchell free-kick only to see his header creep past the post.
The North Belfast venue was no place for the faint-hearted. Blues goalkeeper Roy Carroll was called into action to save from Jordan Owens before the visitors broke quickly to create a chance at the other end, with Chris Casement firing hopelessly wide.
Crusaders then went close again with Whyte and Heatley causing havoc down the right and when the ball landed on the boot of David Cushley - he had just replaced the injured Mark McChrystal - his low shot flashed inches past the post.
The home team threatened again.
This time Jordan Forsythe’s long throw-in was flicked on by Owens to Heatley, whose acrobatic scissors effort failed to find the target.
But Healy’s team looked to have an appetite for this one and, when Niall Quinn was hauled down by Billy Joe Burns, Crues goalkeeper Brian Jensen was forced to tip Mitchell’s free-kick over the top.
Then in another lightning break, Waterworth and Stephen Lowry created an opening for Jordan Stewart, who could only shoot into the side-netting.
The Crues drew first blood on 37 minutes, with a great strike from Heatley.
Forsythe’s diagnal pass picked out Owens, who tricked his way past Mark Haughey and Heatley was perfectly placed to poke home the big man’s cross.
Although Linfield went looking to repair the damage after the interval, they failed to trouble Jensen.
Instead it was the Crues who came within inches of doubling their lead when Forsythe’s rasping volley crashed off the crossbar.
The game erupted for all the wrong reasons on 63 minutes when Cushley and Stafford collided in the centre circle.
Referee Hetherington immediately flashed a red card in the direction of the Crusaders man.
Within seconds, after consultation, he rescinded the decision and instead issued a second yellow card to Stafford, who simply couldn’t believe his luck.
With the clock ticking down, the home team almost grabbed the second goal they craved when Owens volleyed in a Heatley cross, but Carroll produced an outstanding save, low to his right.
But it was the Crues who finally settled it in injury-time when Heatley broke quickly down the right and crossed for Whyte to tap home his easiest goal of the season.
CRUSADERS: Jensen, Burns, Coates, Beverland, McChrystal (Cushley 9, Ward 81), Brown, Caddell, Forsythe, Heatley, Whyte, Owens.
Unused subs: Dougherty, McClean, Glackin.
LINFIELD: Carroll, Staffford, C Stewart (Strain 81), Haughey, Waterworth, Lowry, J Stewart, Clarke, Casement, Mitchell (Millar 81), Quinn (Burns 76).
Unused subs: Callacher, Fallon.
REFEREE: Raymond Hetherington.