The BBC picked the perfect game for me to show live on Friday evening: third-placed Coleraine, against fifth-placed Crusaders. Both teams with big ambitions for the rest of the season and both with an eye on being the outright winner of the league come May. It has been four years since the Crues registered a win at the Coleraine Showgrounds, and 40 games since the Bannsiders last lost at home.
Head to Head
The Bannsiders have been the Crues’ Achilles heel this season. Oran Kearney has truly been able to deal with the Crues’ one-dimensional long ball tactics. There was also the little matter of the ex-Crues player Jamie Glackin. Since going to the Bannnsiders from the Crues he has become a different player – just not in the ‘Baxter mould’, per se. So far this season, in the two games they have met, the Bannsiders have been the runout winners. A 2-0 home win in October and a 4-2 win away in September.
Players to Watch
For the Bannsiders, it had to be Eoin Bradley – the Crues’ defence just can’t deal with him. Big, strong and leading the line, he knows how to play the game and has a wonderful football head on his shoulders.
For the Crues, Jamie McGonigle. This striker has been a revelation after transferring between the two clubs at the start of the season. Even being played wide left at times, he gets on with it and continues to play for the shirt.
Coleraine set up with a 4-4-2 formation. Jamie Glackin was given the freedom to move around the pitch from his wide left position which gave the Bannsiders the extra man in the middle of the park. Eoin Bradley, who has been a constant thorn in the Crues side, once again led the line with James McLaughlin.
Crusaders also set up in a 4-4-2 formation. The Crues’ 4-4-2 was a more compact and narrower setup with Declan Caddell and Phillip Lowry playing a little deeper in the middle of the park. The two wide men of Paul Heatley and David Cushley played narrow and tight. The Crues’ central defensive partnership was Billy Joe Burns and Rodney Brown. The two are full-backs by trade but clearly showed their versatility.
The Crues set the team up to entice the Bannsiders in and then punish them on the counter, a really narrow formation that the Bannsiders were struggling to get to grips with. The Crues got to grips with what they needed to do in this game: keep Bradley quiet. Too many games between the two teams and he has had it all his own way. Too many games we have witnessed him and Colin Coates just get into a wrestling match. Well, Coates wasn’t playing and Burns was in no mood to be bullied.
The game had a tame start but once the Crues settled they took the lead. A wonderful delivery by Forsythe into the box was easy pickings for Owens who produced the finish at the back post. The Bannsiders did hit the post but it was through the boot of Crues defender Burns. McLaughlin then had a flash at the Crues goal, but straight at Ger Doherty. Jamie McGonigle then nearly got his name on the score sheet as he outpaced McConaghie, only to see Johns save with his feet. Owens should have made it two but instead of scoring, flashed a shot across the net.
The Bannsiders came out in the second half with more intent. Glackin was the first to get close, only to see his shot go high and wide. Carson also had a chance for the Bannsiders but his attempt went over the bar. The pressure was beginning to build upon the Crues and it took a goal-line clearance by O’Rourke to keep them in the game.
The Crues took off Cushley and replaced him with Gary Thompson. A re-shape leaving Owens up front on his own, with McGonigle pushing out wide on the right, and Heatley on the left. Thompson now fitted into a three-man midfield. Heatley could have killed the game off late on for the Crues but wasted an opportunity.
Man of the Match
Billy Joe Burns: The Crues defender was immense throughout the evening. It has been a long time coming for the Crues to have someone playing in the middle of the back four that could deal with Bradley. Burns controlled the backline and was cool, calm, and collected throughout.
This was a game the Crues really needed to win. When the team sheet came out eyebrows rose due to the number of players being played out of position. But Stephen Baxter set the team up to play narrow and hit the Bannsiders with quick breakaways. McGonigle playing off Owens was a really potent strike force when they gelled. The Bannsiders will feel as though they have dropped three points in the title run and after a run of 40 games undefeated at home. Not the best way to lose your record – in front of all the cameras.