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Player of the Month Paul Heatley ready for Crusaders' latest Windsor war

 

By Alex Mills

Hotshot Paul Heatley insists Crusaders are primed for another 'war' against Linfield at Windsor Park tomorrow.

Even though the current Danske Bank Premiership champions suffered a horrible opening defence of their title, having already tasted defeat on six occasions - two more than the entire campaign last season - Stephen Baxter's boys are now very much back in the mix.

Since a shattering 3-0 loss at Ballymena United back on October 27, the Crues are unbeaten in eight, which has resulted in them clawing their way back to within seven points of David Jeffrey's Sky Blues.

The Shore Road team also have a County Antrim Shield final to negotiate on January 22 - against either Ballymena or Linfield - while their rivalry with Jeffrey's side will continue next Tuesday when the teams meet in the semi-final of the League Cup.

Not bad for a side that was written off only two months back.

Heatley, who today is named the Belleek November Player of the Month by the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Association, has been instrumental in helping the Crues get back on track.

"Our performances at the start of the season were dire, and that's being polite," said the 31-year-old, who bagged six goals in seven outings last month, earning him his first personal award. "Thankfully, we've managed to turn it around.

"We didn't manage to take all three points from last week's game at Glentoran but, under the trying circumstances, when we had two players sent off, it wasn't a bad point.

"Now we go into the lion's den on Saturday. It's always a massive game - it's always a war when the teams meet and that's what we expect again.

"It is two giants of the game going head to head. I'm sure it will be a great spectacle. There is always that extra edge when the teams meet. We'll go to Windsor Park looking for three points and hopefully we can put on a show for our supporters."

Heatley believes any one of five teams could emerge as champions.

He added: "It's been a funny season. At the minute, there are five or six teams that could put in a genuine challenge for the title.

"But we don't really worry about any other team... it's about what we do and how we perform.

"We expect to be up there challenging and, fingers crossed, that's where we'll be come the end of April.

"It's all very tight. Ballymena might be seven points ahead of us at the minute, but that could all change inside a couple of weeks. Glenavon were up there once and they've had a few poor results, so that just proves how quickly things can change.

"We just have to focus on preparing well for every game to make sure we get the right result."

With the Crues now adopting a new full-time set-up, Heatley reckons the move is now beginning to bear fruit.

"The full-time training is working well," he adds. "There has been an adjustment for the management, players and staff. There is a lot going on at the minute and, structurally, it's all beginning to take shape.

"The boys are adjusting well to the extra sessions - it's basically down to the individual and what they are able to commit to. It's a sign of us going in the right direction.

"We gave ourselves a bit of a mountain to climb in terms of our title defence, but we are getting there.

"A lot of people used the changes that are going on around the club as an excuse, but that is totally wrong. We were just not playing well.

"Every one of the boys are responsible for their own performance - collectively we were not good enough and I certainly put up my hands as being one of them.

"But thankfully over the last seven or eight weeks we've really clicked into gear."

Although the Crues had Kyle Owens and Rory Patterson dismissed last weekend, Heatley insists there is adequate cover.

"We have a lot of quality players just itching to get a chance, which is testament of the strength of the squad," he added.

"At Crusaders, when you get your opportunity, you've got to take it."

Heatley pipped Linfield striker Andy Waterworth and Ballymena Johnny Addis for the November monthly award.

Belfast Telegraph

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