Crusaders up to fourth after win over Ballymena United

Stephen Baxter’s Crusaders last night claimed a crucial three points as they moved into fourth place in the Danske Bank Premiership League table.

By Alex Mills
Tuesday, 15th March 2022, 10:16 pm

In a game they dominated from the off against David Jeffrey’s Ballymena United, they really should have been out of sight before striker Johnny McMurray grabbed the vital winner midway through the second half.

The North Belfast team are now in pole position for home advantage in the end-of-season European play-offs.

Philip Lowry shot the Crues into an early lead, but they failed to build on that.

Crusaders striker Johnny McMurray celebrates his goal with Robbie Weir. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

They were made to pay for a series of missed chances when Ryan Waide levelled for Sky Blues early in the second half.

But with McMurray in such impish form, it was fitting he conjured up the winner.

United goalkeeper Sam Johnston, replacing Sean O’Neill, who is currently on loan from Crusaders, had a lucky escape after only two minutes when he totally misjudged Jordan Forsythe’s lob into the box only see the ball drift inches wide.

But the home team were in front seven minutes later. Defender Mal Smith, on loan from Glentoran, attempted to clear Ross Clarke’s cross at the back post, but he managed to ram the ball of Lowry and the ball finished in the net.

The Crues almost added a second on 21 minutes. Ben Kennedy produced a little bit of magic before trying his luck with an audacious 25-yard effort that was curling into the top corner until Johnston got a touch to deflect past the post.

Baxter’s boys were the dominant team, but failing to turn their possession into goals. In another eye-catching move down the right involving Kennedy and Clarke, McMurray got up above Smith only to see his header fly wide.

And, as the half-time clock ticked down, a Billy Joe Burns header flashes wide before Johnny McMurray tried his luck with a stinging drive from distance that arrowed over the top.

Incredibly, United came back off the ropes to level on 52 minutes – in their first meaningful attack of the game. For once the Crues were caught cold at the back with Leroy Millar’s cross finding Michael Place in the six-yard box, who cut the ball back to Waide to thump into the roof of the net.

Crusaders responded with Adam Lecky’s lob being hoofed off the line by Steven McCullough before Clarke’s low drive slipped through the gloves of Johnston and was finished off by Lowry, but referee Evan Boyce ruled out the effort after spotting an infringement.

The home side should really have been back on front on 64 minutes when Kennedy’s pin-point pass picked out McMurray totally free inside the box, but low drive was deflected past by Johnston – a big chance missed.

But the former Larne man had better luck 60 seconds later with a replica move.

This time it was Robbie Weir who supplied the pass and, after walking past Johnston, the big striker expertly slotted home.

CRUSADERS: Tuffey, Burns, Hegarty, Wilson (Barr 89), Weir, Lowry, Kennedy (Owens 88), Lecky (Heatley 81), Forsythe, Clarke, McMurray.

Unused sub: Shields, Doyle, L Patterson, Patterson.

BALLYMENA UNITED: Johnston, Waide, McCullough, Barr (Kelly 61), Bramall (Kane 73), Loughran, Millar, Graham, Smith (McGrory 73), Nelson (Redman 31), Place (McElroy 73).

REFEREE: Evan Boyce.