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Irish Cup: Crusaders come from behind to beat Cliftonville and reach final

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Two goals late in the first half saw Crusaders come back from a goal down to beat Cliftonville 2-1 and reach the Irish Cup final.

Billy-Joe Burns bundled home from close range in first-half injury-time to win a scrappy North Belfast derby semi-final at Windsor Park.

Joe Gormley had given the Reds an early lead which the Crues equalised when goalkeeper Luke McNicholas palmed a Ross Clarke cross-come-shot into his own net.

Cliftonville striker Paul O’Neill had a great chance to draw his side level late on but he delayed when the ball dropped to him in the box and Crues keeper Jonny Tuffey was able to come off his line and save superbly with his feet.

The former Glentoran forward also had a goal disallowed at 1-0 up in the first-half, heading into the roof of the net before being flagged for offside.

Crusaders will play either Ballymena United or Newry City in the final, with those two teams set to contest the other semi-final after Glentoran lost their appeal for being dismissed from the competition for playing an ineligible player in their quarter-final win over Newry.

The victory sends the Crues into the final for the first time since 2019, when they defeated Ballinamallard United easily to lift the trophy.

It also helped the Shore Road club banish the memory of last year’s semi-final when they lost to Larne in a controversial penalty shootout in which goalkeeper Tuffey was sent off.

Defeat ended a 13-match run without a loss for Paddy McLaughlin’s men but, more importantly of course, ended their hopes of a treble after they won the League Cup last month. It also means the club’s wait for a first Irish Cup success since 1979 will go on for at least another year.

Crusaders recover well to win tense encounter

It will matter very little to Crusaders, but the semi-final proved to be a scrappy affair between the north Belfast rivals.

Cliftonville took the lead in the eighth minute when Gormley showed his poacher’s instincts to guide the ball past Tuffey with a first-time finish from a Levi Ives delivery into the box after Jordan Forsythe had cleared a cross from the lively O’Neill.

The Reds looked comfortable for a spell after going ahead, with Tuffey having to be alert to rush off his line and deny Gormley before O’Neill had a goal disallowed for offside after he headed home a Kris Lowe cross.

Jonny Tuffey’s vital contributions helped Crusaders banish the demons of their heartbreaking semi-final exit a year ago

Crusaders gradually began to play their way into the match, however, and McNicholas came off his line sharply to thwart Paul Heatley before the young goalkeeper’s error led to the Crues equaliser.

He failed to hold a 35th-minute Aidan Wilson cross and, when the ball dropped to Clarke, the winger tried to steer it goalwards but it looked like a significant touch from the scrambling McNicholas turned the ball into his own net with Heatley lurking at the back post.

Stephen Baxter’s men then went in 2-1 up at the break when a Ben Kennedy corner from the right was flicked on by Clarke and bundled in from close range at the back post by Burns.

There was little goalmouth action after the break before that late chance for O’Neill, who failed to repeat his late League Cup final heroics in the same net that he equalised in injury time of that showpiece.

The Crues will know their cup final opponents on 13 March when Newry and Ballymena face each other for a place in the decider.

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