Belfast Telegraph

Waters staying calm on Shore Road for Stephen Baxter's Crusaders

By Graham Luney

Stephen Baxter says cool heads will help Crusaders realise their title dream.

Pressure will grow on the Hatchetmen as the Danske Bank Premiership title race enters the final furlong but the players are keen to erect the business as usual sign outside Seaview.

The Shore Road men have only lost four of their 31 league games to date and with the cushion of a six points lead over Linfield they are hotly tipped to finish the job over the remaining seven outings.

With an Irish Cup semi-final against Glentoran also on the horizon, a first-ever league and cup double for the club is within grasp but such historic achievements don't come easily.

Crusaders' bubble could still burst and the tension will crank up a little at the home of Ballymena United tomorrow but Baxter is determined the atmosphere will remain calm in the dressing room. The former Crues and Linfield striker, who won two titles at both clubs, knows what it takes to get across the line first in a championship race.

"This title race is a bit like going to prison for me," joked Baxter. "You just want to get it over with and play the matches as quickly as possible. The adrenalin is kicking in and you want to play the games. But I'm 49 years old now and I've been around this game for a long time. I just believe in establishing a routine and everyone is geared towards making sure the players are comfortable and fully prepared.

"Everything needs to be right behind the scenes and you are looking after a group as opposed to the more selfish attitude when you are a player.

"I detected a little nervousness in the team for the first time in the win over Institute but these things are perfectly natural and when the players settle down they will play and have been playing fantastic football.

"But people like myself, Jeff Spiers and Roy McDonald have been there and done it and we will keep the players focused on what they need to do. There is no point in worrying about the games, it's all about staying calm and not getting carried away with all the hype." Crusaders will have skipper Colin Coates and Paul Heatley available again for the trip to the Sky Blues and the squad will be fully utilised with silverware available on two fronts.

"Having Colin and Paul available for selection is a big plus and I was well aware how the post-split fixtures were going to pan out," added Baxter. "At this stage of the season and in our position you always expect difficult matches and we have only lost four matches all season, three of which were at home, so five away games in a row starting tomorrow doesn't concern me one bit."

Baxter is celebrating 10 years in the Seaview hotseat and one of his loyal comrades, goalkeeping coach Roy McDonald, has paid a glowing tribute.

"I think Stephen enjoys working with us," joked McDonald. "He's been around a few clubs and enjoyed a lot of success as a player and now manager. He's really grown into the job because when he took it on he had only finished playing and it's a big transition.

"Stephen goes about things in a nice way. He runs his own business and runs the club like it is his business."

McDonald, who has been at the club for more than 40 years as a player and now coach, added: "It was a culture shock when we were relegated 10 years ago and the club made a big decision to restructure the board and get their finances in order.

"Stephen was appointed as manager and that has been a big, big step forward for the club. Jeff Spiers, a top player and Charlie Murphy and Marc Wilson as well as myself have helped things move along.

"Since Stephen has come on board he has really taken the club forward and with the backing of the board and supporters and the success that comes the expectation levels rise every season because of the money that is spent and the quality of player that has been brought in.

"I can go back to the 1972-73 team when we first won it. You can't compare teams because the whole structure of the game has changed but at the moment we have a very strong and well balanced team. The bigger squad we have has enabled us to overcome injury problems."

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