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It's treble joy for the Crusaders at Northern Ireland Football Writers' Awards

By Graham Luney

The champagne keeps flowing at the home of Crusaders Football Club and three of their heroes received special honours at the annual football writers' awards bash last night.

It was a stunning Seaview treble as Stephen Baxter, Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte lifted huge personal honours at the Ramada Hotel.

Baxter pocketed the Manager of the Year award while Heatley and Whyte lifted the BT Sport Player and Young Player of the Year prizes.

The Hatchetmen clinched the Gibson Cup for the first time in 18 years and it was only the fifth championship in the club's 117-year history.

Finishing 10 points ahead of nearest challengers Linfield, Baxter's men really slammed their foot on the accelerator in the second half of the season.

As well as winning two league titles at Linfield, former striker Baxter was part of the two championship-winning Crusaders sides in 1995 and 1997 but this Danske Bank Premiership title triumph - his first as manager - is his finest achievement in Irish League football.

When Baxter took charge of the club in 2005 they fought hard but couldn't avoid a first taste of relegation. The rest is glorious history with the Crues returning to the top flight at the first attempt and years of progression have seen them capture the Irish Cup in 2009, the County Antrim Shield in 2010 and the League Cup and Setanta Cup in 2012, though Gibson Cup glory this season tops the lot.

"The last 10 years have been tremendous, culminating with this year's title success," said Baxter, who agreed a three-year contract extension last month.

"We are enjoying our time and it is awesome to be involved with Crusaders at this time."

Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton, who guided his side to Europa League qualification, and Glentoran chief Eddie Patterson, fresh from his second Irish Cup win in three years, were also nominated for the manager's award.

Heatley now adds the Football Writers' Player of the Year prize to his Ulster Footballer of the Year award presented by the Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters' Club. The 27-year-old beat off competition from Cliftonville ace Joe Gormley and Warrenpoint Town striker Daniel Hughes to become the first Crues ace to win the top player award since Chris Morrow in 2012.

Heatley finished the season with 29 goals, 27 of which were netted in the Danske Bank Premiership campaign.

Whyte saw off the challenge of Glentoran's Jordan Stewart and Dungannon Swifts' Jamie Glackin to be crowed Young Player of the Year and the 19-year-old's sensational wing play has also attracted significant interest from cross-channel clubs.

Bangor ace Jordan Forsythe was named BT Sport Championship Player of the Year, seeing off stiff competition from Carrick Rangers' Conor McCloskey and H&W Welders striker Michael McLellan.

The Jimmy Dubois non-senior team of the year award went to Carrick Rangers after Gary Haveron's men sealed promotion from Belfast Telegraph Championship 1 to the Premiership. Also nominated were NAFL Premier League side Ards Rangers and Harryville Homers of Ballymena Saturday Morning League Division One.

The football writers' Merit Award went to Ruth McCreery, an unsung hero at Glentoran who does a huge amount of voluntary work behind the scenes.

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