Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Baxter's new deal is perfect present ahead of Crusaders' title party

By Graham Luney

Crusaders' title-winning celebrations have gone up a gear with the news that manager Stephen Baxter has signed a new three-year contract.

Baxter has just reached 10 years in charge at Seaview and marked the milestone by guiding the club to their first league title in 18 years.

The red and black ribbons will be on the Gibson Cup when it arrives on the Shore Road tomorrow for a party the size of which hasn't been seen since Sid Burrows did the honours in 1997.

Crusaders are firmly in party mode after winning the club's fifth league championship and the news that Baxter is extending his stay in north Belfast will bolster hopes that the Hatchetmen will continue to be a cut above the rest in the next few years.

The 49-year-old steered the club to Irish Cup glory in 2009 - their first in 41 years - the County Antrim Shield in 2010 and the League Cup and Setanta Cup in 2012 but his first league title as manager is the highlight of his career to date.

After winning the league crown twice with both Linfield and Crusaders, he took charge of the Crues in 2005, guided them out of the Intermediate League and transformed them into Irish League champions.

Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell said: "Stephen has been a pleasure to work with.

"His professionalism both on and off the pitch has been immense and it is no coincidence that we are now where we are under his managership.

"It is wonderful that he has signed for another three years but it is my hope as well as everyone else that he is still here in another 13 years' time and still producing trophies for us all to celebrate."

One of the many outstanding talents who have blossomed under Baxter is winger Paul Heatley, frontrunner for all the Player of the Year gongs, including the prestigious Ulster Player of the Year award presented by the Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters' Club.

The 27-year-old will have to see off a challenge from his team-mate Jordan Owens and Cliftonville hotshot Joe Gormley to net that prize but there's no doubt he's playing the best football of his career under Baxter.

"Stephen's new contract is well deserved," says 'Heats' who has netted 27 goals this season. "For 10 years he has transformed the club from an Intermediate side to Premiership champions and it's very important to have stability."

Portadown's Chris Casement's will find out today if he can play in next week's Irish Cup final.

Casement received a six-game ban for head butting Dungannon Swifts man Terry Fitzpatrick in last month's 1-1 draw at Shamrock Park. The defender's appeal against the IFA's Disciplinary Committee's decision was heard last night.

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