Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Baxter the best call Crusaders ever made

Calling the shots: Stephen Baxter at Saturday’s Irish Cup Final
Calling the shots: Stephen Baxter at Saturday’s Irish Cup Final

By Billy Weir

February 2005 was a noteworthy month for a number of reasons - Ellen McArthur set the fastest time ever to single-handedly sail around the world, Prince Charles popped the question to Camilla, YouTube was launched and The Apprentice aired for the first time on British television.

But in north Belfast, a phone call by Crusaders chairman Jim Semple was to set a chain of events into action, the dividends of which are still being reaped today.

Sadly, the late lamented Crues chief wasn't at Windsor Park on Saturday to see Stephen Baxter, the recipient of that call 14 years ago, lift the Tennent's Irish Cup, an incredible 10th senior trophy since he succeeded Alan Dornan in the hotseat.

Baxter wasn't an immediate saviour, they had to suffer the ignominy of a first relegation in the club's history to play Championship football, but in many ways that drop down has proved to be the catalyst for the good times now.

In his excellent book, Red and Black, Crues director Mark Langhammer recalls the night on April 6 when Glenavon upset the odds to win the promotion/relegation play-off and condemn the Shore Road side to the second tier.

"Everything about Seaview that night stank of decay, the old floodlights barely lighting up a darkly clouded sky," he wrote.

"The whole place looked like it had seen better days. A dismal night. Relegation to intermediate football was the least of it. Drowning in debt to the tune of well over half a million pounds. Behind with rates and utility bills, in hock to the bank and at the end of our credit lines, the jury was out on whether the club could, or even deserved, to exist.

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"Baxter had given us half a chance, now blown, but would he stay? The small and dwindling Seaview faithful feared for their club, and for the future."

That's why the celebrations on Saturday after the defeat of Ballinamallard United taste all the sweeter, the well-run, professional, dynamic, swashbuckling, ambitious Crusaders of 2019 the total antithesis of the train crash of 2005.

It hollers volumes of where they are at that winning the Irish Cup and Co Antrim Shield has been seen in some quarters as a 'disappointing' season.

To put things in perspective, the club has won seven league titles and four Irish Cups in their history, Baxter's reign accounting for three Gibson Cups and Saturday's win the second time he has helped them get their hands on the most-prized knock-out silverware.

"You really need to pinch yourself and ask if it is real, because you'd probably expect this more of a club like Linfield," Baxter said as he reflected on now and then.

"For Crusaders to haul themselves up from the bottom, that's probably the bigger success of all this.

"They were penniless, now all of a sudden they've forced themselves on from nothing to win these trophies.

"This success is based on hard work. People work hard at what they do to achieve what they have done. Whilst they want to do it, I'll drive them to do it. These trophies are hard to win. We have seven league trophies in our history, we have four Irish Cup wins in our history and, in the last decade, this team has won three League championships and two Irish Cups.

"That's some going. We can't ask much more from them. If we win another couple of cups in the next 10 years I'll be thrilled."

Now, I don't believe that final statement for a moment.

This is a different beast nowadays, Baxter himself is a full-time manager and, although delighted with cup success, he will be smarting that they couldn't make a better fist of things in the Danske Bank Premiership.

There is certainly no danger of resting on laurels; a mere 48 hours after success on the pitch, they announced the signing of Dungannon Swifts' captain Chris Hegarty on a three-year deal.

For me, no matter who else comes and goes this season, that is the signing of the summer, a man who deserves his chance to play on a bigger stage than the Swifts could provide for him.

The Crues' squad is beginning to age in a few places but his arrival is evidence that Baxter knows he has to freshen and strengthen to maintain their levels of excellence.

"Our league form hasn't been as good as I would have liked this season, there's lots of reasons for that, but overall it will galvanise us to come back bigger and stronger next year and have another good go at it," he told me a couple of weeks ago.

"Everybody will get stronger next year in that pursuit to win the title, it's a very hard thing to win.

"You had the Linfield-Glentoran dominance when even I was growing up as a wee boy, then playing in my early days Linfield won six and seven titles on the trot, then Glentoran, then we had Portadown dominance that broke that mould, so there's high benchmarks from Linfield and to get all these other teams like ourselves entering that race is brilliant.

"If Larne come into that race and one or two others, it's fabulous for our game. You've seen Ballymena's great effort this year, Coleraine's great effort last year, Cliftonville before that and it's absolutely fabulous."

Hegarty's arrival is likely to be followed by others now that the cash from booking their place in Europe has been secured but, as Baxter himself said on Saturday, given a cup run that accounted for Linfield, Glentoran, Ballymena United and Coleraine on the way to the final, sometimes it is nice just to sit back and reflect.

"This has to be a celebration day. We built the cake, putting layer on layer, by beating all those top teams. Today, we put the icing on the cake," he said.

So move over Ellen, Sir Alan Sugar, dancing dogs on YouTube and even proud new grandpa Charles, the minor news of 2005 is still making the biggest headlines in 2019.

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