Crusaders retained the Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup with a consummate performance against Ballymena United in today’s final at a sun-kissed National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.
There was none of the drama of last year’s decider, when the Crues needed extra time to get past the Sky Blues, as Stephen Baxter’s side strolled to a 4-0 win in front of 9,688 fans.
Goals from Ross Clarke, Adam Lecky, captain Philip Lowry and the evergreen Paul Heatley sealed the impressive victory for the team from north Belfast.
David Jeffrey’s charges conceded after just 11 minutes and that was a big blow to their confidence.
Crusaders fielded a team packed full of experienced operators and they never looked like losing their grip on the trophy after Clarke’s opener.
There was an impeccably observed minute's silence in memory of Kaylee Black before the action began. Thirteen-year-old Kaylee, who played for Crusaders Titans, passed away last week.
The first chance of the game came in the third minute. A Clarke corner was flicked across goal by Crusaders striker Lecky and Jude Winchester headed just wide of the far post.
Crues keeper Jonny Tuffey had to push out a header from Crues defender Daniel Larmour as he headed the ball towards his own goal when trying to clear a whipped Ross Redman free-kick.
In the 11th minute Winchester raced clear of the Ballymena defence, however Ballymena keeper Jordan Williamson raced off this line to save the midfielder’s low drive with his legs.
Moments later Crusaders took the lead. Clarke’s shot from distance took a wicked deflection off Ballymena’s Steven McCullough and nestled in the back of the net.
On 24 minutes a looping cross from Redman was met by Sky Blues skipper Josh Kelly, however his header was off target.
Sky Blues striker Ryan Waide was inches away from getting on the end of a Robert McVarnock through ball as the game ebbed and flowed.
Williamson gathered a Lowry strike before saving once again from Lowry as Crusaders threatened to grab a second.
Redman fired a free-kick well over the top for the Braidmen before Williamson produced a fine parry from a rasping Jordan Forsythe effort – and Forsythe drove the rebound wide.
Crusaders continued on the front foot after the break and they extended their lead seven minutes after the restart.
Lecky teed up Jarlath O’Rourke and his low shot hit the inside of the post. The rebound deflected off a Ballymena defender and fell to Lecky whose sliced effort looped over Williamson’s head into the net to make it 2-0.
Williamson pushed out a curling free-kick from Forsythe as the Crues went in search of a third goal.
In the 65th minute Crusaders added to their tally. Clarke fired in a corner and skipper Lowry rose superbly to head the ball home from eight yards.
Goal number four for the Hatchetmen was not far away. This time it was Paul Heatley who got in on the act, the veteran winger scoring with a sweetly struck 20-yard curler.
In the closing stages there was little in the way of goalmouth action and Crusaders saw out the game with relative ease.
Ballymena United: Jordan Williamson, Robert McVarnock, Ross Redman, Douglas Wilson, Scot Whiteside, Craig Farquhar, Steven McCullough, Joshua Kelly (captain), David McDaid, Ryan Waide, Sean Graham.
Substitutes: (used) Jordan Gibson, Michael Place, Kenneth Kane, Andrew McGrory; (unused) Sean O’Neill (GK), Evan Tweed, George Tipton.
Crusaders: Jonathan Tuffey, Jordan Forsythe, Jarlath O’Rourke, Rory McKeown, Daniel Larmour, Robert Weir, Ross Clarke, Philip Lowry (captain), Adam Lecky, Jude Winchester, Paul Heatley.
Substitutes: (used) Declan Caddell, Jordan Owens, Christopher Hegarty, Ben Kennedy, Gary Thompson; (unused) Tom Murphy (GK), Dean Ebbe.