Belfast Telegraph

Friends in the North have scope for optimism

By Graham Luney

There's been a revolution in north Belfast on the domestic football front and it isn't only Cliftonville who are riding the rest of a wave.

At neighbours Crusaders there is a healthy dose of optimism in the air as Stephen Baxter continues to offer evidence he is one of the best young managers in the local game.

Many pundits expected the Crues to struggle last season - even though they returned to the top flight by coasting to the Intermediate League title.

But the Shore Road men celebrated a top six finish and left clubs such as Ballymena United and Dungannon Swifts trailing in their wake.

With the new Invitational League looming on the horizon, there is pressure on Crusaders to maintain that progress but Baxter has every faith in his young guns to deliver.

But the Seaview supremo also knows he needs experienced heads in the dressing room and the arrival of Darren Lockhart, Gary Smyth and Eamonn Doherty will help the starlets such as Chris Morrow, Stephen McBride and Colin Coates to shine.

Gary Smyth has joined the Crues in a loan deal from Glentoran and the two-time title winner has the tools to keep the club moving in the right direction.

Jeff Spiers' retirement at the end of last season left a considerable hole in the Crues rearguard but Smyth agreed to join the north Belfast club because he can sense silverware is on the horizon.

The Crues have already booked their place in the semi-finals of the Crest Teamwear County Antrim Shield and quarter-finals of the CIS Insurance Cup - though Smyth is cup tied for the Shield campaign.

"Crusaders had a great season in the last campaign, they got off to a flier and the aim is to do that again," said Smyth.

"To finish ahead of the Dungannons, Ballymenas and Newrys of this world was a great achievement and the goal in football is always to keep improving.

"Everyone in the team has impressed me this season. I am surrounded by terrific young players who are playing without fear.

"Stevie McBride is a very steady, reliable player, as is Davy Magowan who was at the Glens and in midfield Chris Morrow is as good as anyone in the league.

"There is tremendous potential to win trophies here and the players have the hunger and desire to do that. That's why I have joined the club and you never tire of wining things in the game."

Crusaders open their league campaign at home to Portadown as Baxter's men aim to land a psychological blow ahead of the CIS Cup final eight showdown between the sides.

"Ronnie McFall and Portadown players will be disappointed with their fourth place finish last season," added Smyth.

"They will want to get off to a stunning start but it's up to us to stop them.

"Everyone at Crusaders is hard working and ambitious. There is a tremendous atmosphere and the club craves success."

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