Belfast Telegraph

Crues hungry to show rivals we can rise to the challenge of title treble, warns Burns

By Graham Luney

The early signs are ominous for clubs hoping to wrestle the Gibson Cup off Crusaders.

Two matches, two wins, 10 goals scored and only one conceded.

And the champions aren't even into their stride yet - they are simply warming up.

Linfield, in contrast, have started the season in lethargic fashion, struggling to find a creative spark.

Today's blockbuster battle at Seaview is the perfect time for David Healy's men to demonstrate their title-winning credentials but lingering doubts over the challenge coming from Windsor Park remain.

The Blues have won just one of their last nine visits to the north Belfast venue - in April 2014 - and Crues boss Stephen Baxter has assembled an awesome squad.

Right-back Billy Joe Burns knows what it takes to win three titles on the bounce from his glory days at Linfield and he can now sense something special happening on the Shore Road.

But he's also experienced enough to know that the moment Crusaders think they have this title-winning mission sorted they will be brought down to their artificial surface with a considerable thud.

A home victory today would turn up the heat on Linfield and send out another powerful statement that the Hatchetmen are a cut above the rest so the Blues will need to show their mettle.

"If Linfield can beat us people will be saying the tables have turned, they will be a point above us in the league table, unbeaten and possibly top of the league," said Burns, last season's Ulster Footballer of the Year.

"Wins breed confidence and they will strongly believe they can beat us at Seaview.

"Form goes out the window in these big games and it often comes down to who wants it more on the day.

"It's up to us to show that we have that hunger and desire not to only win these matches but go on and win three titles in a row.

"I've been lucky enough to do that at Linfield but it does get a lot harder with each passing season as opponents keep raising their game to try and shoot you down.

"It really comes down to our attitude and how we deal with the expectation, pressure and intensity that other teams bring into our matches.

"If our attitude is right we will be just fine. If we take our eye off the ball we will pay for it, like at Carrick Rangers last season.

"While we have improved our squad so have several other teams and Linfield have not signed Northern Ireland internationals Roy Carroll and Sammy Clingan to settle for being second best in a title race.

"Glenavon are getting stronger and stronger while Cliftonville have been moving in the right direction since January and enjoyed success in Europe.

"The competition in the league has got a lot tougher and you have to respond to that challenge."

A victory over Linfield would open up a five-point gap on the Blues and one glance at the strength in depth at Seaview suggests that rivals don't want to be playing catch-up, even this early in the campaign.

"What is great about our squad is that we know if our top players are performing then no one can match them or beat them," added Burns.

"When you have Paul Heatley, Gavin Whyte  and David Cushley on fire who is going to stop them?

"Gavin has started the season the way he ended the last one and I regard him as the best young player I have seen in my time in Irish League football.

"If he keeps improving, a career in the professional game is ahead of him and hopefully he can hit the heights with us and earn that move.

"If Gavin doesn't get a move he deserves, he will keep performing for us and with this squad he is sure to taste more success. Stephen (Baxter) understands that you must always improve the squad and his signings underline that. He's done a superb job in bringing brilliant players to the club and to name just two of the new boys, Howard Beverland and David Cushley have started off really well.

"It's a long season and you need to have a strong squad to sustain a title challenge.

"All the boys know they will have a big part to play and it's important they are ready to do that and they understand the club's desire to win more trophies."

Crusaders have traditionally been slow starters but not this time. A fierce competition for places keeps the players hungry.

Burns added: "We can't have any complaints; two wins, six points and 10 goals scored with only one conceded.

"They were two tricky games to kick off the season so we have got to be satisfied.

"You never know how strong Ballymena United are going to be but the six goals and clean sheet was a fantastic outcome for us.

"Carrick Rangers away can be a difficult fixture as we discovered last season when we were expected to brush them aside and found ourselves 3-0 down after 20 minutes and eventually lost the game. It's important we stay focused and never get complacent."

Confidence is not in short supply at Seaview and winger Paul Heatley also feels the Blues could be in for a rough ride this afternoon.

"We have a good record against them but we know it's going to be feisty," he said.

"There will be a good atmosphere with the two sets of supporters. They had a tough game on Wednesday and I'm sure their manager will have something to say to them. But as long as we focus and we turn up and put in the performance that we know we can, I think we'll go and win the game."

Belfast Telegraph


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