Belfast Telegraph

It has become mission possible for Baxter's Crusaders

By Graham Luney

Crusaders can see the prize in front of their eyes… if only they could reach out and grab it.

At the weekend they hit the Danske Bank Premiership summit, leaving their fans in a state of nervous anticipation.

Could the Gibson Cup be coming back to Seaview for the first time since 1997?

The Crues have been down this road before - several times - but they haven't managed to reach the promised land.

So the big question with 25 games gone and 13 still to go is will it be a different outcome for Stephen Baxter's side in 2015?

One point clear of Linfield, the supporters are looking ahead with hope rather than expectation and their caution is understandable given their role of bridesmaids for the last few seasons. You can never take anything for granted in this fiercely competitive league and Baxter will want to keep title thoughts as far away from the dressing room from now until May.

But I've a feeling in my bones that this group of Crusaders players have a genuine chance of making history.

Why? Several reasons. Firstly, look at their squad. Players such as Colin Coates, David Magowan, Jordan Owens, Richard Clarke, Paul Heatley, Declan Caddell, Diarmuid O'Carroll and goalkeeper Sean O'Neill have an impressive amount of mileage on their clocks.

These guys know how to win matches and trophies in this league and although they have struggled to find consistency when it mattered in the past, lessons have been learned and they now have enough experience to see the job through.

New boys Barry Molloy and Stephen O'Flynn bring even more quality and experience to the party, making the Crues well equipped to sustain a challenge.

Secondly, the form of dangerous wingers Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte has been sensational this season, making Baxter's side a menacing attacking force.

The Crues are often criticised for playing 'hoof-ball' - launching the ball high down the pitch - and they could be forgiven for doing so with strikers such as Owens and Timmy Adamson, who are strong in the air but these comments are grossly disrespectful to players such as Heatley and Whyte who are two of the league's best with the ball at their feet.

Thirdly, while the Crues have gone through the gears in recent weeks, their opponents are revealing cracks in their armour.

Linfield have a number of new players who are still adapting to the cut and thrust of our domestic game, Portadown have been inconsistent to date and champions Cliftonville, who finished 19 points ahead of their north-Belfast neighbours last season, are in desperate need of a confidence boost.

A painful irony for Reds fans is that their former hero Liam Boyce is enduring a terrible time at Ross County.

Another former Solitude hero, Rory Donnelly, hasn't made the breakthrough at Swansea City.

Meanwhile, Crusaders fans must be pinching themselves. For most of them, memories of relegation scraps including their drop into the Intermediate League in 2005 are still fresh in the mind.

Next month, Baxter will celebrate 10 years in the Seaview hotseat and the league title is the only prize that has eluded him as a manager. Had he and several players walked away from the club in 2005 where would they be now? Their artificial surface has attracted criticism. One player once told me he felt it shouldn't be allowed in the league but it's kept the bean counters happy and the recently announced plans for a new training complex at Three Mile Water and stand at Seaview underline the board's desire to keep the business thriving.

The plans suggest Crusaders aren't leaving their Shore Road home in the foreseeable future and I know many fans who will welcome that news.

Cliftonville have shown Crusaders what can be achieved through talent, hard work and ambition.

I tipped them to win the league again at the start of the season but at the moment the Crues have the whiff of glory in their nostrils.

Should they fail to win the championship this season I'll be left reflecting on the words of influential American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittie: 'Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, It might have been.'

Belfast Telegraph

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