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Baxter maintains Crusaders haven't got the rewards that their displays deserved over recent weeks

 

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Tough going: Stephen Baxter’s side find themselves in a tight squeeze for a top six place

Tough going: Stephen Baxter’s side find themselves in a tight squeeze for a top six place

�INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

Tough going: Stephen Baxter’s side find themselves in a tight squeeze for a top six place

Stephen Baxter has explained that confidence was never a concern for him in the midst of one of the most testing periods of his 16-year reign as Crusaders manager.

And ahead of another stern examination tonight, the Seaview boss, who has won every prize on offer during his time at the club, wants to see another display of the character that they showed in pulling off the Tuesday night comeback at Portadown that brought an end to a four-match losing streak.

It's not that long ago that Crusaders were being mentioned among the title contenders but, after a dip in form, this evening's trip to Ballymena United is crucial in what is developing into an interesting fight to make the top six, with the Sky Blues sitting in fourth with 45 points and the Shore Road men in seventh, but just three points behind.

Baxter maintains a firm belief in his players, based on performances that he is convinced will deliver points.

"When you are Crusaders and you've had 10 years of a run like we've had and then you lose four games, people start to ask what's happening and talk about a slump," said Baxter.

"We had a couple of outstanding performances against Coleraine and Linfield, at Glentoran we lost in the 90th minute, so there is a hair's breadth in these games, but you lose them and that's it.

"I went home after losing to Glentoran last Saturday and I was happy as a sand boy because our performance was superb.

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"When I go home after a game like Dungannon when we were really rotten, then I get annoyed, and those are the small differences in management.

"You are looking for the performance all the time, win, lose or draw.

"No-one likes losing football matches, no-one more than me. It's a killer when I see the team not getting over the line the way they should."

The Crues had been staring down the barrel of a five successive defeats when they trailed Portadown with just over 10 minutes to go at Shamrock Park in midweek.

The attitude shown by the team as Jordan Owens' winner a minute after Aidan Wilson had equalised gave them a much-needed victory is what Baxter is calling for, with fourth place still very much in their sights.

"Character is what you are asking people to produce. The character has been good, the confidence has never been out of the team," said Baxter.

"The players don't talk about a slump, they don't talk about anything other than driving at trying to win matches, driving at the heart of everything that they do.

"We would love to be top of the league, we're not. We are where we are.

"Sometimes your cycle comes back a little bit, but the thing is not to panic, stay with it, keep playing, keep working hard, keep asking people to go to the well and I thought we did that in abundance at Portadown."

One of the biggest influences in the Crues dressing room, goalkeeper Sean O'Neill, has committed himself to the club by signing a new two-year contract.

The arrival of Jonny Tuffey placed a question mark over O'Neill's future at Seaview, but he is now ready for the challenge to keep hold of the No.1 shirt after knocking back interest from elsewhere.

"Sean had options, he chatted to me and we talked things through and he chose not to take the offers that were available to him, but showed his tremendous loyalty to Crusaders and said that he was happy to stay and fight for his position," Baxter revealed.

"I am delighted that he has chosen to do that because he is an incredible person on and off the pitch.

"We're really glad to have two goalkeepers of such standing at our club."


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