Stephen Baxter: Criticism helped blast us to title joy
Stephen Baxter has blasted Crusaders' critics, saying their "disrespectful, jealous rubbish" helped fire the club to its first ever back to back title triumph.
The Crues claimed successive championship victories after a comfortable 3-1 win at Cliftonville on Tuesday night but the champions have often been labelled a long-ball team.
Former Ballymena United boss Glenn Ferguson was critical of the north-Belfast side's style of play last season and former Northern Ireland international Colin O'Neill waded into the debate in the Belfast Telegraph last November when he said: "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."
Fans of rival clubs have also criticised Crusaders for adopting a direct approach that isn't pretty on the eye but the Shore Road side had the last laugh again by proving they are the best side in the country.
The criticism was laughed off by players and management but it did strike a nerve and inspired the Hatchetmen to blast their way to more title glory.
"I laugh at the criticism because it's the most disrespectful, jealous rubbish that I hear week in, week out from managers who should know better," said Baxter.
"After we beat them all they say is 'we played the better football' and I'm going 'seriously?' I heard that from many managers. Cliftonville got three defeats and a draw against us, Linfield was three defeats and a win, Glenavon did not beat us over the four league matches and they are the three best teams behind us.
"This started off with Glenn Ferguson's comments in the press last year and all of it inspired us, 100 per cent. We had a tag when I played for Crusaders that was 'no-one likes us, we don't care'.
"That is exactly how I feel. I don't care what these younger managers think and who they think they are. They saw a Crusaders team on Tuesday night that destroyed that Cliftonville team and it could have been seven, eight or nine, such was the gulf in performance.
"That's the mark of champions and we won it with a bit of style. This team has been consistent over a long period of time and some of our football know-how has been just that little bit better than everyone else's.
"There's a time to work hard and a time to celebrate. I've told the players that they have to celebrate because these are very, very special moments in all of our careers."
An emotional Baxter is determined to "enjoy the moment" and he will have no problem doing that when he sees the tears and smiles on the fans' faces.
"I'll celebrate this the way it should be celebrated with the fans and players in our club where that is our hub and base," he added. "We'll enjoy these moments and they are big career highlights but when you see the fans' faces in the stands, you see them banging seats and singing and you see them on Saturday showing what it means to them that's why we do this because it means so much to those people.
"That's what drives us on to be better. We had 100 people jumped on a plane and flew out to Estonia to watch us play and it is their life so I'm thinking if we are all privileged enough to come here, play and pick up a few pounds for doing it we have to give it back to the fans.
"It's their club and that's what all this is about - the badge that you wear. I always say to the players and they know this - 'never cheat the fans'. The day you cheat the fans is the day you are leaving. That's what we have to bear in mind because we are doing this for the fans. That spurs us on." Eight points clear with two games to go, the Crues have got the party started but there is still the slim chance that Linfield could be awarded three points if the Northern Ireland Football League conclude that Tim Mouncey was ineligible to play in certain matches following the probe into undisclosed payments.
Baxter added: "I don't know enough of the facts to comment extensively on it but I would hate to see three points taken off our lead so there's an incentive for us to finish off the job even more on Saturday. I'm sure Linfield wouldn't want to win a title in that manner either."