Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter relishing tense Euro battle

By Graham Luney

Stephen Baxter said he always believed the race for a cherished European place was going to be tense and tight.

Crusaders are nervously looking over their shoulder after Portadown moved to within two points of the third-placed Hatchetmen last weekend.

Baxter's side have suffered the heartbreak of losing in the final of the League Cup and County Antrim Shield on penalties as well as crashing out of the Irish Cup at the semi-final stage.

To miss out on European football would be the final knockout blow. Portadown, who visit title-chasing Linfield tomorrow, are on the charge and the Crues, who go to The Oval to face Glentoran, know it.

The north-Belfast side lost a bruising encounter to Linfield last Saturday and will be without Chris Morrow and Paul Heatley, who were sent off in that fixture.

"That's what the fight to the finish is all about," said the Crues boss. "Didn't Rory McIlroy have to make a nice putt to stay in the Masters and avoid the cut?

"We expected it to go down to the wire. You will get passion and I thought the game against Linfield was a great spectacle in front of a big crowd. It was absolutely fantastic, a great atmosphere.

"We used to get our bums smacked at Windsor all the time but this team has really developed. These games are difficult because you are up against the top teams and that third place spot is going to be hard to pin down. The Ports are fighting for it too. It's a tall order for all of us.

"We have injuries and suspensions but you have to deal with these things and you must rise to the challenge."

Baxter is still in awe at his midfielder Nathan Hanley, who scored and shone against Linfield despite mourning the loss of his father Charles.

"What a star he is," added Baxter. "Losing your father is a very difficult time in your life but he begged me to let him play and his character shone through.

"He had to nurse his ill father but we have given him support. Football has been an outlet for him and we will continue to help him."

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