Belfast Telegraph

Being written off spurred Crusaders to title glory, says Stephen Baxter

Cliftonville 0-1 Crusaders

By Conor McLaughlin

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter has offered ironic thanks to the media for counting his side out of this season's Danske Bank Premiership title reckoning.

The Shore Road outfit all but clinched the Gibson Cup for the first time in 18 years with Saturday's 1-0 victory over outgoing champions Cliftonville at Solitude and, with their vastly superior goal difference taking care of business in the unlikely event of sacrificing their nine-point lead at the summit, Baxter enjoyed having the final word as he reflected on various pre-season predictions.

"You guys (the media) would probably ask us questions after about four games, if we can win the league, and you're sort of going, 'We're only four weeks in boys, there's still 500 points to play for'," he said.

"It was interesting because you actually spurred us on a little bit because the first four months of the season, it was 'Linfield, Cliftonville, Linfield, Cliftonville, Linfield, Cliftonville' and Crusaders weren't mentioned.

"We weren't mentioned until Christmas. It was Cliftonville and Linfield who would fight it out to win the title, blah, blah, blah. Portadown were then mentioned, we were never mentioned. Great. We enjoyed all that.

"That got us to where we needed to get to and, when we lost at home to Portadown (on December 6), I spoke to the boys in the dressing room and I just said we will attack every single game of football we play from here on in until the end of the season, we will charge at every game to try and win, it will be the charge of the Alamo - and that's what we did, we never looked back."

Saturday's success came virtue of Paul Heatley's seventh minute strike and though Cliftonville - whose European ambitions now lie close to ruins - had at least one stonewall penalty claim waved away by referee Mervyn Smyth, the hosts were quick to pay tribute to the champions-in-waiting, offering congratulations on the pitch and from the stands before donating a crate of beer to the visiting dressing room after the game.

"The mark of football people are the ones that come over to you like every Cliftonville player did and shook my hand and said, 'well done, you deserve it'," added Baxter.

"A number of Cliftonville fans also stayed at the end. When the final whistle goes, that's what you have to do. You fight tooth and nail but, at the end, you have to say, 'well done, you were the best'."

As for Heatley, the goal and celebrations capped a whirlwind few days which saw the winger's wedding force his absence from Tuesday's defeat to Portadown and, as he prepared to head straight from Solitude to honeymoon in Paris, he said: "It's been a hectic week, it's been crazy.

"It's so hard to miss a game, you don't want to, but some things in life only come round once and that, unfortunately, clashed with football so I had to make that sacrifice.

"It was nerve racking because there were a few from Crusaders representing at the wedding and we were all huddling around our phones looking for free wi-fi, trying to get the updates.

"Thankfully it didn't affect the final outcome but today was absolutely superb by all the players and we probably should have sealed it a little bit more comfortably but we'll take the 1-0."

CLIFTONVILLE: Cherrie, McGovern, Scannell, McMullan, M Donnelly, Knowles, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Cosgrove, McMurray. Substitutions: McDaid (M Donnelly, 67 mins), Winchester (McMullan, 86 mins), J Donnelly (McMurray, 67 mins).

CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, Robinson, Magowan, McClean, Clarke, Caddell, Heatley, Owens, O'Carroll, Whyte. Substitutions: O'Flynn (Whyte, 73 mins).

Man of the match: Paul Heatley

Match rating: 7/10

Referee: Mervyn Smyth (Belfast)

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