Linfield defender Sean Ward has dismissed suggestions that Crusaders are a one-dimensional team.
With imposing figures such as Colin Coates and Jordan Owens in their ranks, critics have been quick to label the Crues as ‘physical’ and ‘long-ball merchants’.
But after marching to the Danske Bank Premiership title last season – finishing 10 points ahead of nearest rivals Linfield – the Seaview men have started to earn the praise they deserve.
And while defensive linchpin Coates and behemoth striker Owens played key roles in the success, it was the displays of wing wizards Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte that showcased a polished approach from Stephen Baxter’s side.
Linfield defender Ward is preparing for an close-up view of that potent threat on Saturday when the Blues travel to Seaview.
It may only be the middle of September, but already the significance of the clash is evident.
Linfield currently sit top of the Premiership, five points clear of Crusaders, but Ward is refusing to get caught up on the lay of the table at this juncture of the season.
“We are just focused on our next game, and that is against the champions,” he said.
“Crusaders had a difficult start to the season, but they have started to hit form again – as you would expect.
“They have a very strong squad, and when players get injured they have someone who can come in and do a job.
“They are still the team to beat this season, regardless of the way the table looks. They are the champions and they strengthened over the summer.
“They are a very good team. People have labelled them a physical team that likes to play long balls. Without doubt they are a strong team, but they are a very good footballing side.
“You only have to look at the likes of Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte, and players like Richard Clarke. All very good footballers.
“And you don’t see Heatley or Whyte scoring too many headers. They like the ball on the ground.
“So I think they are a very flexible side.
“Sometimes you pick out one or two danger men in teams, but with Crusaders you can pick out three or four.
“But we have dangerous players too. Andy Waterworth, Guy Bates, Aaron Burns and young Kirk Miller who I think has been the player of the season so far.
“Kirk has done fantastically well, and that’s what confidence can do for a player.”
Ward bagged his first goal for Linfield in last week’s 1-0 win over Ballinamallard.
It was his first in over two years with the Windsor Park club.
“I’ve waited two years for that – so I enjoyed it,” he jokes.
“It was nice to score, especially as it turned out to be an important one. You feel as if you are contributing something.
“I think that is my 17th or 18th goal in 14 years in Irish League football. It is just over one goal a season.
“Hopefully I can add to this season’s goal – we will have to wait and see what happens.”