Crusaders still eyes on European prize: Paul Heatley

Paul Heatley hopes to get to Europe by winning the Irish Cup or via the end of season play-offs

Peaky Blinders Irish Cup quarter-finals: Glentoran v Crusaders (The Oval, 7.45pm)

CRUSADERS may have endured an erratic campaign – but winger Paul Heatley says the Shore Road men still have their eyes on the prize of European football.

Fancied to be one of Linfield’s closest challengers for the Premiership title this season, the Crues languish in sixth place after losing a staggering 14 league games - a statistic that would have been unfathomable to the club in the previous decade.

While acknowledging their league challenge fell desperately short, Heatley is still confident they can make Europe either through winning the Irish Cup or via the end of season play-offs.

Speaking ahead of tonight’s Irish Cup quarter-final trip to Glentoran, the 33-year-old wide man said: “You look at the points we’ve lost this season, a lot of them have come against bottom six teams where we’ve just thrown leads away.

“It’s been a challenging year for everybody. No matter who wins the league it certainly won’t be by an immaculate points tally. It’s just a bit of an anomaly – we’ll put it down to that. We’ll try and finish as high as we can and turn our attentions to next year to strengthen.”

Stephen Baxter has guided the north Belfast club to three league titles and hopes to add a third Irish Cup crown to the club’s collection before the end of the season.

“We’ve a massive amount to play for,” Heatley added.

“We want to finish as high as possible going into the play-offs and, of course, the Irish Cup is absolutely mammoth because it guarantees Europe.

“When you’re that used to playing in Europe you don’t want it to slip through your fingers, so we’ll be doing everything we can to get that European slot and hopefully finish the season better than how we’ve played through the year.”

The Crues breezed to a 5-0 cup win over minnows Knockbreda last weekend and hope to topple in-form Glentoran who edged out Cliftonville 1-0 to set up tonight's tie of the round.

Regarded as one of the most consistent attackers in the local game since joining Crusaders nine years ago, Heatley still has a thirst for more winner's medals and European trips as his testimonial year approaches.

“You do have to alter your game a wee bit because you end up having opponents man-marking you,” he said. “When we play the likes of Glenavon, I always have a man that just follows me, he’d probably follow me to the toilet if he had to.

“Jordan Owen would be the same in terms of getting attention. It’s a challenge but it’s nice to have that bit of consistency throughout your career."

Heatley quit football after playing for Cliftonville in his youth before being coaxed out of self-exile by intermediate club Brantwood.

He later signed for Carrick Rangers before Crusaders came calling.

“I’ve been very, very blessed. I’ve got to travel to literally every European destination going with Crusaders – from Albania to Bulgaria to Copenhagen, Latvia, Slovenia – travelling on private flights and playing the likes of Wolves and Rosenborg. That's the stuff of dreams.

“I’m extremely proud and delighted but I suppose it’s not the time to be looking back too much. I’m currently trying to hit the 200-goal mark and that’s a personal incentive. I’m sitting around 180."

Meanwhile, in tonight’s other cup quarter-finals Linfield face Loughgall, Ballymena host gate-crashers Dergview and Larne are at home to Carrick Rangers (all 7.45pm kick-offs).

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