Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Five players that caught my eye on the Irish League's opening weekend

Gareth Hanna casts his eye over some of the individual displays he saw this weekend

By Gareth Hanna

Having seen both of last season's top two on the opening weekend, it's been a fitting return to my Danske Bank Premiership reporting days.

And amongst Crusaders' 4-1 win over Ballymena United and Linfield's 2-0 victory over Carrick Rangers, there were a few big performances. Here's my pick of the bunch, in no particular order.

1 Paul Heatley (Crusaders)

What a player. Heatley underlined just why he is up there with the very best players in the Irish League as he hauled his Crusaders side to victory at the Ballymena Showgrounds. They had fallen one behind but it was the winger who sparked his side's revival, slotting home a clinical equaliser. He single handedly then stuck the knife in Ballymena, racing clear and getting Kyle Owens sent off for a foul when he was the last man. And after that, Heatley delivered the fatal blow, smashing home an early contender for goal of the season - a 20 yard half-volley right into the top corner. Simply, he can win a match on his own.

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On the up: two-goal hero Paul Heatley is hoisted skyward as Crusaders began the new Premiership season with a big win at Ballymena

2. Howard Beverland (Crusaders)

Colin Coates, rightly, gets plenty of plaudits for his performances in the heart of Crusaders' midfield. But I was impressed with Beverland. Having seen relatively little of the Crues in recent seasons, I had forgotten just how good the former Coleraine centre-back is. Calm and collected, he dealt with everything that came his way - particularly during a first half in which the Crues didn't assert their dominance as much as they did in the final half hour. Yes, they were stronger and had the better opportunities, but much of that was because Beverland snuffed out every Ballymena attack that came his way. Matthew Shevlin was busy and would, I have no doubt, have scored more than one had it not been for Beverland's presence.

3. Jordan Stewart (Linfield)

The best way I can put it is that Stewart provided Linfield's answer to Heatley's display. First of all, let's forget the penalty. That wasn't his best ever strike of a ball. BUT...

That aside, Stewart taught the Carrick defence a footballing lesson. His quick feet dazzled his markers, when they could get close enough to see them. He played his part in the Blues' second goal, taking the game to the defence before smartly off-loading to Niall Quinn, whose cross set up Kirk Millar.

Then for that penalty - he somehow scooped the ball through a wafer-thin gap between two defenders, dashed past another and was clattered inside the box. It was an astounding piece of skill and underlined why another move to England is certainly not beyond the 22 year-old.

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Linfield’s Jordan Stewart was a step ahead of the Carrick defence.

4. Niall Quinn (Linfield)

A goal and an assist will always qualify you for these types of lists but the left-back's overall display was equally as impressive as his two key moments. The whipped ball for Millar's header was replicated more than once during the match that saw him attack more than he defended. Plenty of Irish League players' biggest flaw is the final ball, Quinn's is a huge asset - and a striker's dream. And who could forget his finish for Linfield's opener? A low driven finish that would befit any forward.

5. Harry Doherty (Carrick Rangers)

The Carrick Rangers goalkeeper was under the cosh from start to finish at Windsor Park and had plenty to deal with but did well to hold Linfield to just two goals. The penalty save from Jordan Stewart will see the former Glentoran man stripped of spot-taking duties but it wasn't the only save of note the former Finn Harps man made. The fingertip save from Mark Haughey was very impressive. Carrick fans were probably wondering how they would replace Bam Neeson but, bar one punch when he should have caught during the second half, this performance showed why Doherty earned a contract from boss David McAlinden.

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