Baxter full of pride as Crues rewrite history
FC Levadia 1-1 Crusaders 1 (Aggregate 1-1) (Crusaders win on away goals)
The good times just keep on rolling for Crusaders.
Just two months after winning the Irish League title for the first time in 18 years, the Shore Road is celebrating again after making European history.
The Crues went to Estonia last night knowing that as long as they avoided defeat in their Champions League first qualifying round tie against Levadia Tallinn they would progress in Europe's premier competition for the first time.
A 1-1 draw was enough for them to do just that and now they travel to Albania next week to face Skenderbeu Korce in round two.
It wasn't just a matter of scraping a draw and squeezing through thanks to the virtue of the away goal rule either.
The Crues could - and probably should - have won the game. And comfortably as well.
They were denied a penalty late in the first half when Paul Heatley went down - manager Stephen Baxter made his feelings known to the referee at half-time - and Heatley also struck the bar in the second half as Levadia struggled to cope with the Crues' goalscoring threat.
Michael Carvill scored the opening goal after just four minutes - and what a crucial goal it turned out to be.
Heatley drove at the heart of the Levadia defence and as he was closed down, last season's Player of the Year lofted the ball over the top and Carvill was on hand to send a left-foot shot low across the goalkeeper and into the net.
The Crues were punished after Carvill brought down Artur Pikk on the edge of the box in the 22nd minute as Siim Luts totally caught out goalkeeper Sean O'Neill when he struck a wonderful free-kick into the top corner to equalise.
After that it was different to the European nights that Irish League clubs have experienced in the past.
There were very few nervy moments - apart from O'Neill twice saving from substitute Kaimar Saag after he came on with 18 minutes to go - and any scoring chances were created by the Crues.
Carvill and Jordan Forsythe, who was making his full debut for the club, both had a couple of efforts each before Heatley was denied a second goal that would have left Levadia needing to score another two more to turn the tie around.
Given the standard of the Crusaders performance, that was never going to happen, with Baxter brimming with praise for his team.
"Paul Heatley was magnificent, what a player, as they all were, but he just gives you something else," said the manager.
"There were some superb performances. Andrew Mitchell was excellent, David Magowan was magnificent, Josh Robinson…
"Jordan Forsythe, it was a marvellous performance from him as well. He goes in there and should have scored and the game would have been up.
"This team is full-time, there is a big pitch in their national stadium, they'd a lot of the ball, they worked it into areas, but they didn't hurt us at all. How many shots did they have on target?"
The Crusaders party are due to arrive back in Belfast this afternoon and they are already preparing for a quick turnaround, with a trip to Albania to be made next week, which has thrown up something of a logistical headache.
"It's going to be tough. The travelling conditions in particular are going to be tough. From the nearest airport we have a two-hour trip," said Baxter.
"The hotels aren't good either. We've only got one hotel I think that we can get hold of.
"That'll cause its own problems, but these are nice problems to have.
"I think we lose one player from the squad. Colin Coates is still away, so that will create its own problems as well, but the club has just financially secured themselves another £200,000 or something, so fair play to them."