Crusaders' title desire is stronger than ever, says Coates
Colin Coates says Crusaders are back and ready to regain the Danske Bank Premiership title. The Crues kick off their league campaign at Ballymena United tonight still hurting from their 3-0 defeat there in April, which effectively gifted the title to Linfield.
Stephen Baxter's side slipped up at the death, finally caving in after being put under relentless pressure from the Blues.
It was a heartbreaking end for the Shore Road men who led the charge virtually all the way to the finishing line and were agonisingly close to becoming only the third side after Linfield and Belfast Celtic to clinch a title hat-trick.
But the dawn of a new season gives birth to a fresh dream, and the Crues know they must respond to the emergence of a more formidable force at Windsor Park.
A major reason why the north Belfast side finished trophyless last season was the serious ankle injury Coates suffered, denying him any influence in the title run-in, but now he's raring to go, as are his comrades.
"I'm feeling good, I played in the two European games and the ankle feels okay, there are no issues there," said the Crues skipper. "The boys are raring to go and the squad is very strong. It's probably the strongest squad we have had in my time here.
"A number of quality players have been added and the manager has a job on his hands picking the team.
"There is really healthy competition for places and that bodes well for the season.
"I think the hunger and desire will be stronger but I would also say that last season is gone, it's history, and everyone starts now with zero points.
"The first few games are now vitally important as after five or six matches you could have a good lead or be left playing catch up. We've got to produce good performances to avoid suffering a poor start.
"Winning the title back is our No.1 priority, it's got to be that. It's the biggest prize, the one that every team wants and it's the hardest to win.
"When you're league champions you earn the respect of everyone and then there's the financial rewards and glamour of the Champions League matches.
"We have seen Linfield draw Celtic and the financial benefits from that. But as well as winning the title again, we need to perform better in the cup competitions because we have let ourselves down over the seasons. Competitions like the Irish Cup and League Cup should be within our grasp and we've got to give it everything."
Coates' defensive partner Howard Beverland left Coleraine to lift silverware on the Shore Road last summer but he was also left licking wounds.
The ex-Bannsiders skipper, however, likes the look of a squad bolstered by Jamie Glackin, Mark McAllister, keeper Brian Jensen, Mark McChrystal and Sean Ward.
"When I came to Crusaders last season, I looked at the squad and was impressed, but there is so much more depth to it now, both in terms of numbers and quality," said Beverland.
"The competition for places is fierce with there being at least two players fighting for each position. To have that quality all over the pitch is very reassuring and the manager has bought well.
"I'm hungrier than ever to win the title and I still have faith we are good enough to do that.
"After the disappointing end to last season we are back refreshed and, now we are through the European games, there is excitement about the challenges ahead.
"I was brought to the club to help win silverware and by failing to do that last season, that just makes me more determined than ever to win.
"Linfield are the champions and the team to beat. They have also signed good players like Jordan Stewart and Andy Mitchell who we know well, and it's up to teams like ourselves to chase them down.
"Elsewhere, Cliftonville will emerge stronger and in Joe Gormley they have a big goal threat, so we know the size of the task ahead but the boys are ready for what will be a difficult start."
The Europa League defeat to FK Liepaja was a bitter pill to swallow for the Crues as they were quietly confident of finishing the job in Latvia after leading 3-1 from the first leg.
"The European result was very disappointing because I felt we kept a good shape in the second leg and deserved to go through," added Beverland, who made the shortlist for Ulster Player of the Year last season with Linfield's Jamie Mulgrew claiming the prize.
"It was one of the most disappointing nights in my career because it was a result that would have meant so much to the players and the club.
"It was a great opportunity to progress in Europe and that would have brought the club financial rewards but we just couldn't get there.
"Had we been 14 or 15 games into our season perhaps we could have been tougher opponents to a side that was well into their campaign."
Manager: Stephen Baxter
Captain: Colin Coates
Last season: Second
Verdict: Crusaders will be hungry to reclaim the title but they have their work cut out against a powerful Linfield side who now know they possess a big game mentality.
INS: Mark McAllister, Brian Jensen, Sean Ward, Jamie Glackin, Mark McChrystal.
OUTS: Richard Clarke, Alan Keane, Andy Mitchell, Michael Gault, Mikel Suarez (loan to Carrick), Jordan Lyttle.
- Ballymena Utd v Crusaders, Danske Bank Premiership, Ballymena Showgrounds, Tonight, 7.45pm