Stephen Baxter urges caution as Crusaders move eight points clear at top

Crusaders Stephen O'Flynn celebrates after his back post header sealed victory over Dungannon.
Crusaders Stephen O'Flynn celebrates after his back post header sealed victory over Dungannon.

Stephen Baxter sounded a note of caution after watching Crusaders dig deep to claim victory at Stangmore Park.

As the season reaches its midway point, the table has a familiar look.

The Crues are eight clear at the top, on a 17-game unbeaten run and looking good to retain their title.

This victory at Dungannon, where they absorbed the blow of an 87th minute equaliser and came back to win, showed their mettle.

But Baxter is refusing to take anything for granted just yet. “We’re on a good run and we have to keep it going because there’s no respite,” he said.

“The next game comes quickly on the heels of this one.

“We’ve big games to look forward to - Carrick away, Coleraine at home and Cliftonville at home, the latter two being our nearest challengers.

“That’s a tough run, but it will be tough for them as well.”

Crusaders made hard work of it at a windswept Stangmore Park, despite taking a 13th minute lead.

A cross from the impressive Billy-Joe Burns was flicked on for Paul Heatley, who dragged the ball past a defender and slotted home.

Home goalkeeper Andy Coleman saved well to deny Heatley a second soon afterwards.

He also produced fine blocks to thwart Jordan Forsythe and Jordan Owens.

Dungannon, with the wind on their backs, were much more competitive in the second half.

And they looked to have salvaged a point with three minutes left.

Andrew Mitchell took possession after a goal-kick was allowed to bounce, raced clear and slotted past the goalkeeper.

But sub Stephen O’Flynn won it at the death.

Colin Coates played the ball wide to Burns, he crossed to the back post and O’Flynn headed home.

Coupled with Coleraine’s defeat at Linfield, this result saw the Crues’ lead at the top stretch to eight points.

Baxter has now seen his side clock up 15 wins in 19 games.

Heading into the second half of the campaign, he is more than satisfied with their form.

“I’d give us nine out of 10,” Baxter added.

“We lost on the opening day of the season, we’d a couple of draws in there too, but that happens. When you’ve only lost one game in the league, and you’re sitting top, and it’s not Christmas yet, we’ll be pleased with that.

“We weren’t top last year going into the New Year’s Day fixture - we were five behind Linfield. There is still a long, long way to go and we’ll not get carried away just because we’re potentially eight points clear.”

This was the second time in three weeks that Dungannon have lost to a 90th minute goal, having suffered a similar fate against Glenavon.

Boss Rodney McAree is quickly realising what a cruel game football can be.

“I can take a lot of positives out of it, but too many times this season we have scored a goal and conceded within four or five minutes,” he said.

“We got a little bit negative after we equalised.

“We seemed to drop and didn’t carry on playing the way we had played to get us back into the game.”