Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders' magnificent seven make the Irish League grade

Paul Heatley celebrates Crusaders' title win
Paul Heatley celebrates Crusaders' title win

By Graham Luney

It's that time of the year when the votes start coming in for personal prizes and one challenge facing Irish League hacks is assembling their 'Team of the Season'.

Fans will have their favourites and it's impossible to please everyone in this task, but I'm having a stab at it today.

First those who are unlucky not to make my chosen XI. Linfield winger Aaron Burns, has impressed, scoring 20 goals this season, his team-mate Ross Clarke, Glentoran midfielder Steven Gordon and Coleraine's Neil McCafferty all came into my thinking, but each of them just missed the cut.

Not surprisingly most of the players - seven in fact - come from newly crowned Premiership champions Crusaders.

Perhaps that's an indication of how formidable a force the Hatchetmen have been this season and I would expect Paul Heatley to be crowned the BT Sport Player of the Year, voted for by local football writers, next week.

Crues boss Stephen Baxter must be hot favourite to land the manager's prize too.

If Baxter does collect that huge honour, we should all spare a thought for Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton, who steered his side towards Europa League qualification and a stunning third-placed finish.

The Crues showed the biggest improvement this season, finishing 16 points ahead of their total from a year earlier, but Glenavon ran them close by adding 15 points to their 2014-15 tally.

That's one of the reasons why I had to find a place for Kevin Braniff somewhere in midfield.

The former Portadown ace has really weaved his magic at Mourneview, particularly in the second half of the season.

When Braniff is in the mood - which he has been for most of the campaign - he's unplayable.

The first name on the teamsheet though has to be Crues keeper Sean O'Neill.

Off the pitch he may be a quiet character who shies away from the spotlight, but on it he's been the finest stopper this season and his leadership qualities have helped drive the Crues over the line.

Left-back is Glenavon starlet Rhys Marshall who keeps improving and attracting cross-channel interest after winning Young Player of the Year last year.

Crues skipper Colin Coates and Linfield's Mark Haughey get the nod at centre-back.

Coates is the best defender in the league while Haughey has really shown his class this season. Both are big threats from set-pieces too.

Billy Joe Burns is an easy selection at right-back and he probably runs Heatley close as Crusaders Player of the Year this season.

On the wings are Gavin Whyte, leading contender for Young Player of the Year, and Ulster Footballer of the Year Heatley, who has been a cut above the rest this season.

Richard Clarke earns his place in midfield after producing some of the best form of his career and Braniff could play just behind the front two of Joe Gormley and Jordan Owens who netted a combined total of 57 goals in the Premiership.

There you have it.

That's my team of the season - I just hope they are all eligible to play.

Belfast Telegraph


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