Crusaders Baxter sings Heatley's praises after a magical double
Crusaders 3 Ballinamallard 1
Manager Stephen Baxter last night hailed two-goal hero Paul Heatley as Crusaders restored their seven-point lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.
Battling Ballinamallard United threatened to derail the Shore Road team's title defence by taking a first-half lead through Shane McGinty, but the champions upped the tempo after the break.
Big Jordan Owens levelled before Heatley - back from suspension at last - produced two moments of magic that must have thrilled a watching Sky Sports television audience.
"Heatley's goals were worth the admission money alone," beamed Baxter. "We have missed his little bit of quality and pace for three weeks.
"We need a Paul Heatley in our team - he was excellent. His two goals were of different quality. We see it every night in training, so it's no big surprise to us. If those goals had been scored in England, you would see them replayed every week."
Baxter insisted his boys answered the critics with this power-packed display.
"Questions were asked of us with different people putting pressure on after Linfield cut the gap to four points at the weekend. I think we answered those questions really well," he added.
"The score probably doesn't reflect how well we have played. When the opposing manager said it was a training session for us, that says a lot for me."
Even so, it was the visitors who opened the scoring on 17 minutes.
Defender Alan Keane had his pocket picked by Ryan Curran, who quickly found Ryan Mayse. The impressive midfielder sent McGinty clear and his low shot trickled past a wrong-footed Sean O'Neill.
Crusaders should have been level 10 minutes prior to the break when quick-thinking O'Neill sent Billy Joe Burns hurtling down the right. His pin-point pass found the jet-heeled Heatley but, just as he pulled the trigger, keeper Richard Brush got down bravely to save and, when the little striker picked up the rebound, he could only shoot into the side netting.
And they almost achieved the breakthrough they craved seconds before the break when Richard Clarke rolled a free kick to Gavin Whyte, whose blistering drive was superbly pushed past the post by Brush.
Baxter reeled in Carvill and Clarke on 56 minutes, introducing Jordan Forsythe and David Cushley - and the latter delivered almost immediately, crossing to the back post for Owens to bundle over the line, much to the delight of the home fans.
The Shore Road ground erupted with Heatley's wonder strike on 70 minutes.
He appeared to be running away from goal to retrieve an Owens knock down, but a quick turn and volley sent the ball whizzing into the top corner, leaving Brush helpless.
Heatley put the Crues out of sight four minutes later.
This time he waltzed past tackle after tackle before scooping the ball into the net.
It was almost 4-1 three minutes from the finish when Owens connected with a Forsythe cross, but his header scraped past the post as the Crues comfortably extended their lead at the summit.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, Beverland, Keane, McClean, Lowry, Clarke (Forsythe, 56 mins), Carvill (Cushley, 56 mins), Whyte, Heatley (Caddell, 89 mins), Owens. Unused subs: Mitchell, Brown.
Ballinamallard: Brush, McCann, Taheny, McLaughlin, McConnell, Frempong, Lafferty, Morris (Armstrong, 83 mins), Mayse (McCartney, 62 mins), McGinty, Curran (Mullen, 88 mins). Unused subs: McGrath, Elliott.
Referee: Ross Dunlop (Carrickfergus)
Man of the match: Paul Heatley
Match rating: 7/10
- Fixtures to come Tonight (7.45pm): Ballymena United v Coleraine; Friday (7.45pm): Glentoran v Carrick Rangers; Saturday (3pm): Ards v Glenavon, Ballinamallard United v Linfield, Cliftonville v Ballymena United, Coleraine v Crusaders, Portadown v Dungannon Swifts.