Belfast Telegraph

Elusive double joy in Crusaders sights

By Graham Luney

Billy Joe Burns has won three league and Irish Cup doubles at Linfield but the sweetest moment of his career could be just weeks away with Crusaders closing in on the historic achievement.

Crues supporters are a bit like Northern Ireland fans at the moment - daring to dream. You won't hear players or management talk about it in the dressing room but the reality is that the Shore Road side are only a handful of games away from winning the double for the first time in the club's history.

A reluctance to get swept away by the emotion of it all is understandable as the Crues were in this position a year ago only for Glentoran to burst their bubble in the Irish Cup semi-final at Mourneview Park.

Stephen Baxter's side were going all guns blazing for the league title at that stage and it's the same 12 months on.

Now it's Glenavon who stand in the Crues' way of an Irish Cup final place with all roads leading to Windsor Park tonight for the blockbuster battle (7.45pm).

Boasting a five-point lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership - with five games remaining - and within shooting distance of the Cup final, the Seaview men can see the promised land on the horizon. But they aren't there yet and they've never been there before.

Linfield have won the league and Irish Cup double on 23 occasions - Crusaders have not yet achieved the feat.

Burns, whose sensational performances this season have made him a contender for Player of the Year, knows how hard it is to taste double glory, especially for a club like Crusaders that has hit back after suffering relegation and financial woes.

"Not too many teams can do the double because it's such a hard thing to do. The great Cliftonville teams were unable to do it and if we could it would be a remarkable achievement," said the right-back.

"Crusaders were relegated around 10 years ago so for them to be in this position, within striking distance of a double again, is an amazing story. The league title must always be the priority but last year we did take our eye off the ball perhaps and the script was written for Glentoran to go on and win it at The Oval.

"Sometimes you need a bit of luck to win trophies but you have to work very hard to give yourself a chance.

"Crusaders have lost many semi-finals and a few finals and while there is disappointment when you don't win it's still something to be proud of, knowing you are there or thereabouts.

"Winning competitions is always special but the first one usually means a lot and my first Irish Cup final win was against Portadown. It was my first double and very memorable.

"Irish Cup final days are the best you can experience as a player if you win them. You hope the weather is good and the memories are even better. Windsor Park is looking incredible and the place will be buzzing.

"We've played Saturday, Tuesday and now Friday and it's a lot of games but this one is a break from the league and it's a one-off game, you either perform or you're out.

"Glenavon are a fantastic team and they have enjoyed another brilliant season. The fact is that every team in the Premiership is capable of beating everyone else so you need to deliver."

Colin Coates' injury-time winner at Ballinamallard United could be the defining moment of the league season and it leaves Linfield knowing they must win at Seaview next Saturday to keep the title race alive.

"It was a wonderful corner from Diarmuid O'Carroll and a fantastic header from Colin Coates," added Burns. "The fact that we scored so late on made it even more emotional for everyone and it's brilliant to be going into the split with a five-point lead.

"Linfield are flying and winning matches. They have been on a great run. I don't think anyone thought this title defence was going to be easy. I've been fortunate to win three titles at Linfield and one with the Crues and I know from experience that they don't come easy.

"At times we have not played well but dug out a point or three and they all count. The match against Linfield is massive as a win would put us eight points clear but you can't take anything for granted against a Blues side, particularly one playing well and in with a chance of winning the title."

Belfast Telegraph


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