A well struck half volley by Beth Hunter in the last minute was enough to give Crusaders a point against a well drilled Killen side in a feisty encounter at the Mid Ulster Sports Arena, Cookstown.
The match began in a very edgy manner, with both teams playing conservatively, and not wanting to make an early mistake. The first sign of danger happened in the 6th minute, when the ball was fed from midfield down Crusaders right side to winger Beth Hunter, who was then able to cross the ball into the box, but it just sailed above the head of onrushing forward Aimee McNeill.
The next play again allowed Hunter to show her pace and power to beat the full back, but the defender recovered well to slide in and block the cross.
Killen's first effort came after 11 minutes, when a mishit crusaders goal kick fell to the feet of midfielder Emma Harpur 25 yards out, leaving the Crusaders midfield no choice but to bring her down and concede a free kick. Killen weren't able to make the most of the opportunity though, as the shot sailed high and wide.
One minute after this it was Crusaders who were given a free kick from a similar distance, and the effort from right back Courtney Moore looked like it was going in, but it didn't dip fast enough and ended up just over the bar.
The next ten minutes saw both teams have spells of possession, but both defences were on top, with neither team creating much. The first real opening of the game came in the 20th minute when a Killen goal kick fell some distance short of the intended target, and the ball was played out to left back Brooke Baine, who hit in a good cross. McNeill was able to run on to it and get a first time shot away under pressure, but it went just wide of the far post.
Crusaders started building pressure with Baine looking particularly dangerous on the left hand side, when she cut in and hit an effort from 20 yards that was narrowly wide. Two minutes later she produced a cross that would have left forward Chloe Doak with a tap in except for a brilliant covering header from Chanelle Darragh who had tracked the run the whole way.
On 28 minutes Moore crossed the ball in from the right, but on-rushing midfielder Katie McGowan could not connect properly with her attempted effort on goal.
The next chance arrived in the 38th minute, when the ball was played in to Baine, who was now in a more advanced central position. She took the ball and turned her marker both ways before hitting a powerful dipping volley that crashes off the top of the crossbar and away to safety. Really good play from Crusaders number 3.
For all of Crusaders' pressure, the first goal came after some really good play from Killen, with Harpur passing it across to forward Chelsea Sherridan, who made no mistake and hit a low shot which wrong footed the keeper and hit the back of the net, to give her team a slender lead at the break.
Crusaders came out knowing a point would keep control of the league in their own hands, and they came out of the blocks quickly at the beginning of the second half. However Killen's defence held out for the initial onslaught and they managed to hold their own, and looked like causing problems with a succession of corners, however they were unable to add a second.
They did come very close to adding a second when Sheridan appeared to be clean through but a quality slide tackle from Moore took the ball away from her as she was about to pull the trigger. This was followed by a chance for Harpur after some good link up play in the Killen midfield but she could only drag her shot wide.
A defensive error from Killen goalkeeper Chelsea Vaughan almost gifted Crusaders an equaliser when the ball slid through her arms when she went to gather, but there was relief on Killen faces when it went into the side netting.
The relief was short lived however, as Crusaders got their equaliser from the resulting corner, when Hunter ran in at the back post to head into the top corner, making it 1-1 after 62 minutes.
Credit to Killen though as they never let their heads drop, and they kept at it. They came very close to extending their lead in the 71st minute, when a cross from Emma Kee eluded everyone and came back off the bar before being cleared.
With 10 minutes to go Killen did make it 2-1, when a corner was swung in, and the clearance fell to Kee, who smashed in at the near post, keeper Lauren Kelly getting a hand to it but unable to keep it out.
Killen started to get the upper hand with chances to seal the win falling to Sheridan, Harpur and Kym Buchanan, but Kelly was able to save all the efforts fired in towards her goal.
With 10 seconds to go Crusaders created one more chance with a ball played across goal, again by the impressive Baine, and Hunter was there at the back post to smash home the equaliser to bring jubilant celebrations to the whole squad at the final whistle.
Cruaders coach Heather Mearns gave credit to all her players, who battled hard to the final whistle. “I don't really know what to say. We played really well. We never gave up and now we have given ourselves a really good chance to go on and win the league. I'm so proud of all of the girls”
Winning the league was always the target for this talented Crusaders team, and it is now within touching distance. A victory next Wednesday night against CSP will see the Crues secure a league and cup double in the first year of the competition. Should they slip up however, both Killen and Lisburn will be waiting to take their opportunity.
Report & Photographs : Ben Hanna