Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter bites back at critical Colin O'Neill over 'awful' Irish League standard
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter has hit back at fierce criticism from former Northern Ireland international Colin O'Neill that the Irish League is poor in quality and that the Seaview outfit are a one dimensional side who he would not pay to watch.
O'Neill's comments in Wednesday's Belfast Telegraph created an almighty stir amongst all those involved in Irish League football, from managers to players and supporters to officials.
The ex-Portadown, Ballymena United, Ards and Larne midfielder stated: "The quality in the Irish League has been deteriorating for some time. I think it is awful compared to what I grew up watching and when I played.
"Crusaders are the champions of the Irish League, but I wouldn't pay to watch them. They have been successful but that doesn't mean they are good to watch. In my opinion they are not attractive to watch at all."
Like O'Neill, Baxter has been an Irish League fan, player and manager. As a young boy he cheered on the Glentoran team of the 80s and went on to enjoy a brilliant playing career, winning two league titles with Crusaders in the 90s.
He has managed the Crues for a decade and won every domestic trophy going, as well as the cross-border Setanta Cup. Last season he led the Crues to the league title. They scored 93 goals in 38 games.
Baxter was considered and measured in his response to O'Neill's comments. There was bite too as the Crues boss strongly defended his side and the Irish League as a whole.
"It surprised me what Colin had to say. I would also make the point that it is easy for someone to say my era was better than the current era. It doesn't make it right though," said Baxter.
"Comparing one era to another is difficult because so much changes in the game as the years tick by.
"For instance when I played for Crusaders we really did live up to our nickname of the Hatchetmen whereas now players aren't allowed to tackle the way they used to and if they do players squeal for their lives, which is something I believe has come into our game from watching matches across the water.
"Referees have changed as well on how they officiate games.
"In terms of what Colin was saying with regards to the standards being poor in the Irish League, to me in the Irish League now there is more technical ability whereas when I played there was more brute force and ignorance.
"I watch over 50 games every season and while my focus is on Crusaders and being successful I also see other teams and other players and believe they are faster, stronger and better technically than in years gone by.
"I would go as far to say that our product has never been on a better footing and can go forward from strength to strength. We have Irish League sides, like ourselves, who are now winning games in Europe. That didn't happen when I was playing.
"And there is entertainment to be had by watching Irish League football.
"What bores me is watching English Premier League football and the current Manchester United team.
"As for Colin's criticism of Crusaders and our supposed style of play and being only able to play one way, firstly I would urge him to come and watch one of our training sessions and he would see the sharpness and speed of players like Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte and our two touch passing which is phenomenal.
"We have other players like Richard Clarke and Michael Carvill, who are superb on the ball and are sensational to watch.
"It is not just players at Crusaders either. We played Ballymena United in a game recently and Tony Kane and Gavin Taggart gave a masterclass in midfield.
"The Irish League product is strong, make no mistake about it and Crusaders are very much part of that.
"Colin was wrong to say we only have one way of playing.
"In my view we have three game plans and can turn any one of them on at any given time. We are a team that scores lots of goals and different goals at that. You can ask defences around the league if they like facing our attack and they will say it is very difficult.
"On the pitch we have had huge success winning trophies and off the pitch we are thriving too.
"We have gone from having 400 season ticket holders to 800 season ticket holders in recent years. That wouldn't happen if those people weren't enjoying our football. I am very proud of how far our club has come."
Baxter also made the point that someone like David Healy wouldn't be coming to manage in the Irish League with Linfield if it was as poor as O'Neill suggested.
Crusaders meet Linfield in a battle of the top two in the Danske Bank Premiership tomorrow.
"In many ways David coming to the Irish League to be a manager, given his profile and standing in football, tells you a great deal about where our game is at right now," said Baxter.
"Irish League football is on the up and up."
'I still find it exciting and enjoyable to be involved'
Michael Gault - Portadown midfielder and multiple title winner with Linfield
I have to say I thought what Colin O'Neill said was harsh.
In football, people always hark back to the game being better in their day, but I hope when it is my time to stop playing I will see things with more perspective and look at how football has changed, before making judgments.
In any case I believe the modern day Irish League has a lot going for it.
Almost a decade ago, I was part of the Linfield team that won the clean sweep and we had legends of the Irish League in Glenn Ferguson and Noel Bailie and were lauded as one of the best teams Northern Ireland ever had.
I would say from recent years Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley, who were brilliant at Cliftonville before moving to professional football, would have made that team and I think the current Crusaders duo of Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte could have got in there too. All four of them are exciting players. Colin Coates is another who has proved his worth at Crusaders for the last 10 years.
In terms of the Irish League and entertainment value, I think from when I was playing at Linfield, it has actually gone up.
Back then, although we had to work hard for our success, there was a predictability about it whereas now it is very hard to call any game in the Irish League plus you get some crazy results like 5-5 or 7-4.
I've played in the Irish League for many years and I still find it very exciting and very enjoyable to be involved.
'Players now are stronger, fitter and more powerful'
Lee Doherty - Former Linfield midfielder and now Ballymena United coach
It is an interesting debate. My take on it is this: any present day Irish League team would beat an Irish League team from 20 years ago because footballers now are much more physical, fitter, stronger and more powerful, but none of today's players would get into, say, the Linfield team of 20 years ago.
I can see what Colin is saying about the lack of star quality because you don't have players like Jim Cleary or Billy Caskey or Irish League players who could make the Northern Ireland squad for Euro 2016 like the boys who did it for the 1982 World Cup finals.
Having said that, the game is vastly different and nowadays it is a lot quicker which means less time on the ball and more pressing which can lead to more mistakes.
As for Crusaders, I am a very good friend of Stephen Baxter's and I do talk to him about his team's style. It is direct but it works for them.
Jordan Owens in attack is a key figure for them but in many ways they are a team for all seasons.
Ultimately, Stephen and Crusaders are there to win trophies and they have done exactly that.
Not everyone can be Barcelona, playing great football and winning trophies. They have the personnel to do it. Other clubs have to play to their strengths.
'I get to watch competitive battles week in, week out'
Dan Brown - a Linfield fan for 20 years and a regular at Windsor Park
I disagree with Colin O'Neill's opinions about the standard in the Irish League being poor.I believe that the game has improved of late.
More often than not the games are competitive. That's what I want to see when I go on a Saturday and I get it more or less week in, week out.
People compare the Irish League to the Premier League in England, but it's not a true comparison.
What I will say on that is that a couple of months ago I went to Windsor Park in the afternoon and watched Linfield play very well in an entertaining game against Portadown.
I am also a Tottenham Hotspur fan and later on that evening I went out to watch them play Everton on TV and the game was awful.
I had paid £10 in to watch Linfield earlier on in the day and got value for my money.
I also think that Colin's comments on Crusaders are very unfair.
Their style of play is effective and it works for them - the fact that they won the league last season and are top again now proves that.
They are not a bad footballing team either.
'Our game is more entertaining than Premier League'
Gerard Lawlor - Cliftonville and Premiership Management Committee
I totally disagree with Colin's assessment of the Irish Premier League.
Watching games every week, I do not believe the product is deteriorating at all.
In fact, I would say people would get more entertainment by going to watch an Irish League game these days than some of the matches served up at the top level of English football, which don't excite at all.
Take the last two meetings between Cliftonville and Linfield, for example. They were fantastic events and excellent spectacles.
Our attendance at Cliftonville has been growing in recent years and we continue to market the club to attract new fans.
I know other Irish League clubs who are doing the same.
Of course our game is far from perfect but the Northern Ireland Football League is very aware of how we need to improve and Colin's comments about our game are grossly unfair.
Over the past few years at Cliftonville we had Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley, who have since moved across the water, and now at Crusaders Paul Heatley is shining.
You can't say those players and others aren't entertaining.
I would also add that the game has changed.
I have watched Irish League football virtually all my life and players are now fitter, sharper and technically superior.
I think it is a better spectacle than years ago.
The local game is still such a tremendous spectacle'
Alan Snoddy - Former Irish League and World Cup referee
MY disagreement would be two-fold, because I was at Seaview watching Crusaders a couple of weeks ago when they beat Glenavon 1-0 and I remember saying to people afterwards that if it had been live on television it would have been a tremendous spectacle
Crusaders should have had the game wrapped up by half-time, but Glenavon stayed in it and in the second half it was end-to-end and thoroughly entertaining.
The crowds are starting to come back and while they may not be returning in their thousands any increase is positive for the league.
Football has changed greatly in the last number of years. Tackling has gone out of the game, certainly as I and Colin O'Neill would have known it, which may be down to the introduction of artificial surfaces.
Players are less inclined to go flying into tackles on those pitches.
Maybe to some that makes the game less of a spectacle and that could be where Colin is coming from.
I would have thought that allowing the talented players to play more would be a good thing.
Every generation will have its stand-out players. Individuals will look back at their own eras and think that the Irish League was better then and inevitably that will continue.
I do believe that in 10 years time we will still be talking about the current top performers in the Irish League because there are still some great players out there who are great to watch.