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Crues hopeful Whyte will stick around for Bulgarian battles

 

By Steven Beacom

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter has declared that wanted man Gavin Whyte may play in next month's Champions League tie against Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets.

Whyte was an inspirational figure in helping the Crues qualify for the world's biggest club competition but, after savouring title glory in April, many felt he had played his final game for the north Belfast outfit due to interest from several English clubs.

There remains an expectancy at Seaview that 22-year-old Whyte will land his dream cross channel move, with Championship giants Leeds United, League One side Peterborough and League Two's Crawley Town keen, but it is possible a deal may not be concluded before the Crues face Ludogorets in July.

Having been on tour with Northern Ireland to Central America, where he would have made his international debut but for injury, Whyte has taken a holiday and will report back to Crusaders for pre-season unless a move is quickly finalised.

"I'm not anxious about it and Gavin isn't either," said Baxter.

"The transfer window goes into August so he could end up playing the first three or four matches for us. Gavin is comfortable with the situation.

"He is still a Crusaders player and therefore he'll be with us in Europe unless someone comes in over the next few days and weeks and starts talking business."

Being drawn against Ludogorets in the first qualifying round of the Champions League is a tough one for the Crues, who will travel to Bulgaria for the opening leg on July 10/11 with the Seaview return on July 17/18.

Ludogorets - where former Crusaders striker Andy Smith was on the coaching staff three years ago - have won the Bulgarian title for the last seven seasons and have started to make an impact in Europe, reaching the knockout stages of last season's Europa League before losing to AC Milan.

They have also played Liverpool and Real Madrid in European competition since dominating their domestic scene.

Should the Crues pull off a shock success, they will play Dudelange (Luxembourg) or Videoton (Hungary) in the next round. If they lose, under new Uefa rules they will drop into the Europa League.

"We will have a very, very tough challenge ahead of us against Ludogorets but it's a great adventure, it's a great journey and you want to play against top opposition in Europe so I'm excited about that," said Baxter.

• NORTHERN Ireland defender Aaron Hughes has signed a new one-year contract extension at Scottish Premiership club Hearts.

The centre-back had been contemplating retirement but has decided to prolong his career by a further year.

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