Belfast Telegraph

Now Baxter's Crusaders' legends have eclipsed Walker's wonderful Seaview side

By Steven Beacom

Glen Dunlop was one of the finest Irish League footballers ever. He would be in the top three that I have seen alongside the great Glenn Ferguson and the glorious Jim Cleary.

Dunlop was a peerless defender in the mid-90s when Crusaders were the top team in the country.

Guided by inspirational boss Roy Walker the Crues won two titles in that period as well as a host of knockout competitions.

They were renowned for being tough to beat and often played up to their Hatchetmen nickname, but that side had high quality footballers too. They could mix it and milk it.

Champions in 1995 and 1997, players like Dunlop, Kevin McKeown, Aaron Callaghan, Alan Dornan, Gary McCartney, Trevor McMullan, Liam Dunne, Martin Murray, Sid Burrows, Kirk Hunter, Glenn Hunter, Gavin Arthur and Chris Morgan became favourites at Seaview.

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As did a certain Stephen Baxter. He was a menacing striker back then who formed a deadly partnership with Glenn Hunter and up there with the dynamic Dunlop in terms of influence.

After gorging themselves on silverware, some lean years followed for the Crues.

Enter Baxter as boss in 2005 and a wind of change blew through the north Belfast outfit after the club had been relegated to the Intermediate League.

Once he won promotion the following year and established the Crues as a top flight outfit again, he went about making them the best team in the land.

Claiming Irish Cup, League Cup, County Antrim Shield and Setanta Cup glory was welcome, but the championship was what Baxter craved. Now he has two as manager having collected the same number as a Crues player.

Winning a title is one thing. Defending it is even more difficult - and impressive.

No wonder Baxter wore a wide smile at Solitude last night when the Danske Bank Premiership crown was secured for the second season running.

What a manager Baxter has proved to be. The current Seaview stars revere him just like the 90s side respected Walker.

There is a strong argument to state that Baxter is the greatest Crusaders FC servant ever.

Baxter, himself, will point to his players as being the real heroes in what has turned out to be another hugely successful campaign for the Shore Road outfit.

Last season's title glory, the club's first since 1997, was an unforgettable experience for all of the squad. When they reflect on their latest one they will consider it even more satisfactory.

At times their style has been questioned this term, but no one can query the substance of the Shore Road side. They have become masters of the late goal, a trait of champions, illustrating character and class.

And now players like Sean O'Neill, Billy Joe Burns, Colin Coates, Josh Robinson, Andrew Mitchell, Jordan Forsythe, David Magowan, Declan Caddell, Craig McClean, Matthew Snoddy, Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens can bask in the fact that they are history makers.

Last night the club, formed in 1898 and elected into the Irish League in 1949 following Belfast Celtic's withdrawal from the senior ranks, savoured a sixth championship adding 2016 to triumphs in 1973, 1976, 1995, 1997 and 2015.

This was the first time though that Crusaders have retained the crown. Not even Glen Dunlop and the rest of Walker's commanding team did that.

Manager Baxter and his champion players have much to feel proud about.

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