Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter has tipped BJ Burns to follow in the footsteps of legendary duo Alan Dornan and Colin Nixon.
The full-back turned centre-half put in a man of the match performance as his side saw off Dungannon Swifts 2-0 at Stangmore Park, sealing their top six spot ahead of Glenavon’s evening kick-off against Linfield.
Paul Heatley opened the scores before Jordan Forsythe put the game beyond Dungannon from a right-back slot that has become his own new position.
It’s one unorthodox part of a back four that sees Burns partner fellow full-back by trade Rodney Brown in the centre.
For boss Baxter, 31-year-old Burns could have many years left as a leading man in the middle.
“You sometimes find that as players mature, they understand positions a little bit better,” he said, before harking back to the respective Linfield and Glentoran stars.
“Billy Joe looked like he could have played with his suit on today. I thought he was outstanding.
“He’s 31 years old, has been around the game a long time and I remember Alan Dornan who played right-back when we came through then slipped very seamlessly into centre-half and was outstanding for the last half a dozen years of his career.
“Colin Nixon comes to mind who did that particularly well as well. Players mature and they naturally understand the game. If the legs go a little bit, their brain pulls them through.
“Sometimes you just have to look at different games and when they play as well as they play, sometimes you have to leave them in there. Jordan Forsythe has been outstanding at right-back and is giving us a good balance at the minute. Sometimes you’re forced into these calls, losing Aidan Wilson and Chris Hegarty to injury. You have to think on your feet but because they’re intelligent players, they can pass the ball well and create opportunities and space.”
Crusaders are assured of a European play-off place should they need it and, with Coleraine nine points ahead in third, it seems that only an Irish Cup success could save the Crues from a frenetic end-of-season climax.
“We’ve had the great privilege of playing in Europe nine or ten years in a row so we’ve never had to go through that qualifying to try and win our place,” Baxter said. “You just have to be prepared for it. If that’s the route, then getting into the top six is the first bit.
“There is still home advantage to be played for and the Irish Cup. There is a lot of football to be played. Qualifying into the top six was first priority and we’ve done that.”
Michael McCrudden netted a hat-trick in Cliftonville’s 5-0 win over Carrick Rangers, taking his tally to 13 for the season and nine in his last six outings.
Garry Breen and Barry Coffey were also on target for the Reds, who remain fifth, three ahead of Crusaders and six behind Coleraine.
For coach Kris Lindsay, McCrudden is well worthy of any adulation.
"Michael had a frustrating time before Christmas. He maybe didn't play as much as he would have liked but he's come into the team the last number of weeks and certainly looked his opportunity with both hands. His overall performances have been excellent."
Lindsay, who left his gob as manager of Dungannon Swifts earlier this year, is delighted to be back in the game.
He said: "I'm really enjoying it. Things happen in football but I got a call from Paddy (McLaughlin) and haven't regretted it for a minute. There's a talented squad of the players and behind the scenes it's a good club. We've been playing well and hopefully that can continue."
The Bannsiders moved just a point behind Glentoran in the race for an automatic European place.
It was Aaron Traynor’s second league goal of the season that opened the scoring before Stephen Lowry doubled the lead and Ross Redman made it a nervy finish.
For Bannsiders boss Oran Kearney, Traynor’s day was about much more than the goal.
“Aaron led by example today,” he said. “He’s a cracking lad and a cracking player. I thought he was very vocal today and very dominant. I’m not surprised at the goal, the way he played. He went and hunted on a few opportunities and I’m delighted for him.”
Kearney also explained why his initial back three reverted to a back four within just minutes of the opening whistle.
“We just feel at this stage there are different ways of approaching games but ideally today we wanted to match Ballymena,” he said. They’ve played a four for weeks but went with three today. I just feel on days like today, you don’t want to have grey areas. What we sometimes do is just match up and then it’s a straight battle one v one.”
Portadown made it four wins from their last five games as Adam Salley’s late brace added to Ben Tilney’s opener to secure the win at ten-man Warrenpoint.
The double takes former Linfield Academy player Salley’s tally to seven for the season and afterwards, his boss demanded that his current levels become a long-lasting norm.
“Adam did very well to create (the penalty) with the ball over the top for Lee (Bonis),” Tipton said.
“He scored the penalty and his first goal was a good header. It’s something we expect from Adam now. He’s always done well. He’s a strong fella, good in the air and a good finisher with both feet. We want him to keep working hard on and off the pitch. He has to make sure his fitness levels stay as good as they can be so he can perform to a level that is required for us.”