THE transfer window may have just sprung open but unless there is a new EuroMillions winner living on the Shore Road, Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell isn’t going to be writing any bumper cheques very soon.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter has been more interested in keeping his squad together than identifying possible new recruits and the vast majority of his troops have pledged their commitment to the cause.
But injuries and suspensions have hurt that cause this season and the latest error of judgment — this time from their skipper Colin Coates – is threatening to push their dreams even further out of reach.
Coates was sent off by referee Colin Burns midway through the second half of the 2-2 draw at home to Dungannon Swifts and he will now miss the Linfield showdown at Windsor Park tomorrow night.
Given that the Hatchetmen were trounced 8-1 in their last Windsor outing, the absence of the Northern Ireland international is not what the manager ordered.
Although their current form is poor, Linfield’s squad remains much stronger than Crusaders’ and Baxter hasn’t the funds to change that harsh reality.
“I don’t think the club are in any financial position to do any business in the January window,” said Baxter.
“We have to make do with what we have, but we have been fortunate in the last few weeks to secure the services of probably 80 per cent of the payers who are out of contract – we are still waiting on two players to agree terms and we hope that they stay.
“We hope no-one leaves but you can never be sure until contracts are signed. We’ve got key players agreeing contracts like Aiden Watson, Declan Caddell, Davy Magowan, Stephen McBride, Jordan Owens and Colin Coates so across the board we have got most of the guys sorted out.”
Coates was given his marching orders for stamping on Swifts goalscorer Ryan McCluskey in the 67th minute.
At that stage of the game, the hosts were losing their cool a little as the visitors stood firm after grabbing a late equaliser at the end of the first half.
Chris Morrow’s ninth minute penalty calmed home nerves but then it became the Sean O’Neill show as the Swifts keeper pulled off a string of incredible saves.
McCluskey’s equaliser a minute before the interval turned the tide and when Coates was dismissed and Dermot McCaffrey headed his side in front on 78 minutes it looked like Dixie Robinson’s men were going to pull three points out of the fire.
But the Shore Road men never gave up the fight and Morrow netted his second of the game in the 82nd minute.
Baxter had no complaints about Coates’ dismissal but he felt his side deserved a share of the spoils.
“(Referee) Colin Burns is a very honest guy and calls everything as he sees it,” added Baxter. “I’ve no worries with it, it was a fair decision. It put us under pressure which we had to endure.
“But their keeper made world-class saves — how he got to the shots from Morrow and Aiden Watson I’ll never know. If it was a boxing match it would have been stopped. I’m proud of our battling spirit when we went down to 10 men and we deservedly snatched a point.”
Robinson admitted his goalkeeper, Sean O’Neill, deserved an enormous pat on the back at the finish.
“The Crues could have had the game out of sight and although you would expect your goalkeeper to make a few saves, not six or seven good ones!” he said.
“It was a tremendous performance from him. To be fair, and the boys will tell you, he has been our most consistent player all season.
“You mightn’t think that looking at our goals against column but Sean has been phenomenal. He has been showing a great level of performance all season long. But today was a bit extra special.
“Nicking a goal just before half-time gave us a lift and they dropped their heads a bit, allowing us back into the game. We had half a dozen boys out so overall it’s a good point.”