By Damian Mullan
McCormick, Clanachan, Flynn, Johnston, (McCoosh 75), McAuley, Beatty, Curran, (Gaston 83), Hamill, Tolan, Haveron, (Armstrong 75), Gorman.
Armstrong, Youle, McBride, McGowan, Spiers, Livingstone, Munster, Morrow, (Noonan 75), Willis, (Neill 88), Russell, Fox. Sub not used: Broughan.
Referee: Frankie Hiles, (Coleraine).
Weather: rain and wind; pitch: heavy;
Goals: Fox (0-1) 40 mins;
Times Sport Man of the Match: Stephen McBride, (Crusaders).
IRISH Cup holders Coleraine will need to produce a much improved performance in just under two weeks time if their season isn’t to end in disappointment.
Failure at home to a brave but limited Crusaders team on Saturday was reflective of a slump in form which has seen them fail to win a league encounter since the 3-1 defeat of title-chasing Portadown at the Showgrounds on February 7.
A similar display against a rejuvenated Glentoran in the Irish Cup final on May 1 and the Glens will surely gain revenge for their 1-0 final defeat last term.
The home side rarely threatened. When they did, they found the Crues’ defence, superbly marshalled by veteran Jeff Spiers, in uncompromising mood, much to the frustration of manager Marty Quinn.
"Our final ball’s not hurting anyone and we didn’t create any real clear-cut chances," he admitted honestly.
"It worries me that we’re not scoring and killing teams off. But I know that there’s a vast improvement in this team and all I hope is that they can lift themselves when it comes to the final. There’s no doubting the ability in the team."
Many supporters, having paid their money to watch what at times resembled a meaningless end of season affair, were less forgiving at the final whistle.
Once again, Quinn had to shuffle his pack, teenage goalkeeper Laurence McCormick again deputising for the injured Davy O’Hare.
Regular right-back Stewart Clanachan switched across to partner Gareth McAuley at the heart of the defence in the absence of Paul Gaston, missing with a back injury.
Barry Johnston came in at right-back with the rest of the team filling out pretty much as expected, with Barry Curran and Stephen Beatty on the flanks and Tony Gorman and Gary Haveron in the middle of the park.
It was half an hour before the home side threatened. Barry Curran broke the offside trap and hared into the penalty area where he appeared to get caught in two minds between taking a shot himself or squaring to the unmarked Jody Tolan. His indecision allowed Crusaders keeper Neil Armstrong to gather the ball.
Five minutes from half-time, Crusaders took the lead through Liam Fox. The midfielder, released earlier in the week by Scottish club Hearts, hit a speculative shot which looped off the foot of Stewart Clanachan and over the helpless McCormick before nestling in the corner of the goal.
The home side reappeared early for the second 45 minutes but that urgency failed to transmit itself to the action when the referee’s whistle sounded.
It was midway through the half before a free-kick on the edge of the box afforded them a shot on goal. Gorman’s initial shot was blocked and Gary Haveron following up saw Armstrong somehow block his right-foot effort.
Ian McCoosh and Sean Armstrong replaced Johnston and Haveron with 15 minutes remaining and Gaston appeared as an emergency striker seven minutes from full-time.
And despite ending the match with an abundance of strikers, Hamill, Tolan, Armstrong and Gaston, Coleraine could find no way through the Crusaders defence.
These are worrying times for manager Quinn. His team has forgotten how to win and confidence appears low. Saturday May 1 can’t come quickly enough.