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Crusaders' fire still rages after rising from ashes

By Graham Luney

Published 21/04/2015

Pure elation: Crusaders’ title triumph this season is Stephen Baxter’s greatest Irish League achievement
Pure elation: Crusaders’ title triumph this season is Stephen Baxter’s greatest Irish League achievement

Crusaders' rags to riches story is complete. Ten years on from tasting relegation for the first time, the north Belfast side are now kings of the Irish League, toasting their first championship triumph in 18 years.

The team boss Stephen Baxter calls 'the wee club from the Shore Road' has just hit the big time.

Baxter may have got his hands on the Irish Cup in 2009, the County Antrim Shield in 2010 and the League Cup and Setanta Cup in 2012, but this is his finest hour.

No wonder he was emotional after the Crues effectively won the title with a victory at Cliftonville earlier this month.

The 49-year-old won four league titles as a player, two with Linfield and two with Crusaders, and can reflect on incredible knock-out success with the Shore Road club but this is his proudest achievement.

It should never be forgotten that Baxter took charge at Crusaders when they were experiencing very dark times.

Years of battling relegation and financial headaches took their toll, culminating in the dreaded drop to the Intermediate League 10 years ago.

Despite his lack of managerial experience, Baxter restored this very ill patient to rude health.

Like many of the players he could have taken the easy option in 2005 and walked away but he knew if the players shared his passion for the fight the club would rise again. A league championship, over the course of 38 matches, is a supreme test of squad depth and mental strength but Crusaders blew away the opposition since December, launching a ferocious fightback after falling six points behind then leaders Portadown.

Several of the players will now cherish their first league winner's medal though defender Paul Leeman has now done it five times... and they thought he was finished when Glentoran let him go in 2011.

Leeper may now decide to retire and if he does, like legendary jockey Tony McCoy, he'll ride off into the sunset with his head held high and a glorious career to reflect on.

Cliftonville's hopes of making it three titles in a row were crushed but their former striker Diarmuid O'Carroll has - ironically - achieved the feat. Some Reds fans will be wondering how the Killarney man moved in with the neighbours and lived happily ever after.

And right back Billy Joe Burns, who joined from Linfield last summer, grasps his fourth league winner's medal after celebrating three doubles at the Blues.

Burns has been in phenomenal form for the Crues this season and he's just one of the many shrewd additions to the squad made by Baxter in his 10 years as manager.

Linfield's challenge faded in the final throes while Cliftonville's title defence crumbled when the queue for the treatment room at Solitude became as long as the Great Wall of China.

But Crusaders, from keeper Sean O'Neill to prolific marksman Jordan Owens, are deserved winners and they crossed the line first without one of their long-serving midfield generals, Chris Morrow, whose season was shattered by injury. The league prize money and cash windfall from Champions League qualification (at least £325,000) should help the Crues build on this success but they will find out next season what it's like to be the side everyone wants to beat. And the challenge will be ferocious as I cannot recall a time when the top six in the Premiership has been this strong and hungry for success. You only have to look at Glenavon's late surge towards the European stage to realise that next season's title is going to be one of the toughest ones to win.

But for now the supporters are allowed to dance on the streets around Seaview and it's fair to say no-one predicted this day would come when the club was relegated in 2005 just weeks after Baxter replaced Alan Dornan as boss. Baxter wasn't going to tolerate failure and it's another tribute to his man management skills that his top players resisted the lure of big-money moves to rivals.

Even this season, Cliftonville made a bold attempt to bring keeper O'Neill to Solitude.

When I watched Crusaders and Derry City legend Arthur 'Mousey' Brady struggle to hold back the tears when the Crues were relegated 10 years ago, no-one thought this day would come.

Hopefully, I'll see Mousey again on Saturday, this time shedding tears of pure joy.

Belfast Telegraph

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