IRISH LEAGUE: Paul Heatley believes Crusaders are starting to click into gear

Paul Heatley (right) and Ryan Catney do battle
Paul Heatley (right) and Ryan Catney do battle

Goal hero Paul Heatley believes Crusaders are now beginning to play with a swagger.

The little striker bagged his 15th goal of the season to help his team earn the bragging rights in this thrilling North Belfast derby at Seaview.

It also kept Stephen Baxter’s Danske Bank Premiership champs seven points clear of Linfield, who have played one game more, and 12 ahead of Cliftonville.

The Gibson Cup is again within touching distance of this impressive Crues unit.

They even managed to play the final 28 minutes with only 10 men when Billy Joe Burns received his second yellow card of the day following a late lunge on Ryan Catney.

The Reds also had a man dismissed, but it didn’t affect the team numerically as it was substitute George McMullan who was red carded after his criticism of a linesman.

Indeed, referee Ross Dunlop received some criticism as he flashed the yellow card on 12 occasions – some of them were questionable decisions.

Amazingly, it was Heatley’s first goal since he found the net at Dungannon Swifts on December 5.

“It has been a long time coming,” he quipped.

“I think I lost a wee bit of sharpness after breaking my hand. But with the quality we have in this squad, I wasn’t missed.

“Picking up the three points was all that mattered. I think we managed the game pretty well. We coped with any sort of pressure they (the Reds) could muster. We really should have had a few more goals.

“I missed a couple that could really have polished things off for us. Our defence was absolutely magnificent. It was another clean sheet. Those boys help us win games each week.”

The Crusaders’ celebrations at the finish certainly suggested it was a massive victory – they are now beginning to look like champions again.

“I think we’ve looked like that for a while now,” added Heatley.

“We have learnt from our experiences over the past few years. We know know how to dig out results and do what needs to be done.

“Obviously we come up against a different type of challenge each week in terms of varied styles. But the manager has coped brilliantly with the players he has brought in and the squad rotation he uses.

“The players are really determined to hold on to the title. The boys can know enjoy their weekend knowing that we are 12 points clear of Cliftonville. It’s a fantastic position to be in at this stage of the league campaign.

“There is still a lot football to be played – 11 games left. The pressure is completely off us. Our priority is to win every match, but it means our nearest rivals will have to deal with all the pressure of trying to catch us.”

Cliftonville boss Gerard Lyttle admits the title is now a long way off for his team.

“I don’t think it was a pretty game to watch, but when come to Seaview, you know what you’re going to get,” he said.

“People are quick to criticise Crusaders’ style of play but it works for them and they know how grind out results. Big decisions didn’t go our way – I think the referee was way off the pace.

“Crusaders are now in a commanding position, but we will never give up.

“However, we have to be honest, though, and call a spade a spade; it’s going to take something massive for Crusaders to throw it away now. We have our own targets in terms of Europe and the Irish Cup is coming up in a couple of weeks.”