Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders' O'Neill tells fans to keep politics out of game ahead of Cliftonville showdown

By Stuart McKinley

Sean O'Neill has billed the Boxing Day north-Belfast derby as a 'massive, massive game.'

And the Crusaders goalkeeper is calling on anyone intent on ruining the occasion to stay away.

The last high-profile encounter between Crusaders and Cliftonville at Seaview back in February was scrapped shortly after the scheduled kick-off time on security advice due to a loyalist protest that was staged outside the ground.

The match was eventually played more than three months later in a low key atmosphere, long after Cliftonville had won the league and with no Reds supporters in attendance.

Fans from both clubs condemned the incident and officials from Seaview and Solitude have made great efforts in the meantime to make sure that the highly anticipated Boxing Day clash goes ahead without any problems – and in front of a bumper crowd.

And O'Neill is relishing the big game atmosphere as the teams in second and third in the Danske Bank Premiership lock horns in a crunch battle in terms of the title race.

"This game has got to be about football," said O'Neill.

"We can't let silly things from the outside come into the game and ruin it.

"People have opinions on those outside things and we could talk about them all day, but they can't be brought into football.

"Football has to win no matter what."

O'Neill's fear is that any more bad publicity for the league at a time when clubs are counting every penny will turn off the casual fans who turn up every Boxing Day, but then pick and chose their matches throughout the rest of the season.

"I wouldn't say that the league is struggling because I think it's a good league and I don't think it gets the recognition it deserves – it's the people who sit at home and don't come out to matches that knock it – but football has to win on Boxing Day," he said.

"If it doesn't then it's going to be a sad occasion for the two clubs in particular and football in general in this country.

"The league doesn't need another day like we had in February."

The intense rivalry between the north-Belfast clubs has increased in recent times, with the Crues and Reds now fighting it out for silverware on a regular basis.

They fought it out for the league title last year before the Reds took the crown and the Crues finished runners-up.

This time around there is just one point separating the teams at Christmas and after Ballymena United ended Crusaders 24-match unbeaten run, Cliftonville are now considered the form team in the league, with no defeats since the last north-Belfast derby in early-October – 11 games ago.

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter (pictured) will be determined to maintain their recent home form, which has seen them lose only one game at Seaview this season.

And with a League Cup final contest to come in the first month of 2014, the north-Belfast derbies will continue to snowball as the intensity begins to rival the Glentoran v Linfield Big Two contests.

"It's a massive, massive game," said O'Neill.

"I wouldn't say that it's as big as a Big Two game with the huge crowds that brings, but the north-Belfast derby atmosphere is brilliant.

"Both sets of supporters are always very vocal and they make for a great occasion.

"They are becoming bigger and bigger as every game passes.

"Last year we met in a final and a semi-final, we've a final coming up against them again next month and over the last couple of years the rivalry has increased.

"The fact that this one is at Seaview will hopefully give us a bit of an advantage.

"If we can win it we'll get above them again and that's where we want to be at this stage of the season.

"We seem to be meeting each other in a lot of big games and everyone plays football to be involved in big games.

"The League Cup final will be another big game and it gives us the opportunity to put things right after we lost to them in last season's final."

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