In pursuit of European prize money to enhance next season’s squad, Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton praised the strength and spirit of his players in sealing three vital points on Saturday that appeared unlikely with 88 minutes on the clock.
Those final five thrilling minutes at Mourneview Park could prove significant in the final Danske Bank Premiership standings - as Crusaders’ bid to catch Ballymena United in second spot suffered a setback and Glenavon now sit within a single point of the weekend visitors to Lurgan in the chase for third.
It has been a season disrupted by player exits at Glenavon and long-term injury issues, plus the departures of backroom staff, with Kris Lindsay’s September switch to Dungannon followed by a midweek exit to Glentoran from assistant manager Paul Millar.
In response, Hamilton turned to former Glenavon player Kyle Neill to join his revamped coaching panel and promoted Andy Mathieson from within - but it was the on-the-field reshuffle which proved most significant on Saturday.
Sammy Clingan, having stepped up from the substitutes’ bench in the closing stages of the warm-up, stepped forward in the closing moments of the match to seal success from the spot.
Player/manager Hamilton marked his eight-minute cameo with an assist for another substitute, Stephen Murray, to level the game on 89 minutes, then delivered the corner-kick which created the penalty.
Hamilton’s second change off the sidelines, Jordan Jenkins, injected energy into the final third as Glenavon attempted to turn the tables following a Jordan Owens goal on 47 minutes which was simple in its execution but no less effective.
Hamilton’s admiration for his players’ ability to adapt was backed up by a simple comparison to the side on show in September during a previous Glenavon win over Crusaders. Of the 13 players utilised in that home success, Dylan King, Mark Sykes, Ben Doherty, Niall Grace and Gary Muir each made January moves and both Caolan Marron and Andrew Mitchell missed out on Saturday due to injury.
“I always felt confident we could get something,” said Hamilton. “I thought, bar the first five or 10 minutes of each half, we were very good, especially considering we were without so many players, including losing Eoin Wearen the night before due to illness and Andrew in the warm-up.
“I thought ‘JJ’ (Jenkins) was unbelievable, closing down and getting in behind.
“Then Stephen Murray obviously and myself, so it’s nice when you make substitutions and they work out.
“There’s no better man in that situation than Sammy, he’s so calm despite the pressure so late in the game.
“You still expect a team like Crusaders to finish third, at least, given the financial advantage but we’ve given ourselves a shout now.”
Crues boss Stephen Baxter was frustrated by both the penalty call and also his side’s inability to add a greater end product.
“We were the masters of our downfall and should have been six goals to the good before it got to that stage of the game,” he said. “The disappointment comes from within, we missed so many gilt-edged chances.
“The corner-kick was delivered and the ball is flicked, it hits Ronan Hale on the forehead and down off his shoulder and the assistant, I think, has given the penalty.
“These guys have hard jobs but if we are starting to give penalty kicks for those, there will be a lot of penalty kicks.
“We had the game in our hands so we’ve no-body to blame but ourselves.
“We will be very disappointed with the manner of both goals.
“If you don’t do enough and have only the one goal advantage that can happen.”
GLENAVON: Tuffey, Stewart (Murray, 58), Daniels, Marshall, Clingan, Hall (Jenkins, 72), Harmon, McCloskey (Hamilton, 86), Singleton, Garrett, Sharkey.
Subs (not used): Barr, Norton, Taylor, Hunter.
CRUSADERS: Doherty, Burns, Lowry, Ward, K.Owens, Ruddy, J.Owens (Cushley, 89), Thompson (Beverland, 86), Heatley, Clarke (Rn.Hale, 89), Rr.Hale.
Subs (not used): Doherty, McChrystal, McGinley, Patterson.
Referee: Steven Gregg.