Belfast Telegraph

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Baxter relishing the challenge of Crues' clean sweep ambitions

By Graham Luney

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter gave his Toals County Antrim Shield winner's medal to an excited young fan after Tuesday's 4-2 victory over Ballymena United and it's a generous gesture he will be happy to repeat plenty more times this season.

It's a case of one down, four to go for the Crues as they hunt down more silverware this campaign.

With the Shield now safely secured at Seaview, the Shore Road side have two semi-finals ahead, against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the IRN-BRU Cup and Dungannon Swifts in the BetMcLean League Cup.

There's a Tennent's Irish Cup sixth round tie on the horizon at Cliftonville, too, and the players are also hungry to regain the league title after a late stumble allowed Linfield to grab the glory last year.

Winning five trophies this season, while not impossible, is certainly mission improbable but Baxter could yet be handing out more medals to grateful supporters.

"I didn't know the young fan I gave the medal to," said the Crues chief, whose side are now on a 22-game unbeaten run. "But his father called me over and I saw the delight in his eyes just to get a photograph. I always like to see someone else get something special from an occasion.

"When you win medals as a player it's fantastic but when you win them as a manager you give them to someone else. I give all my medals away. I knew the boy would love a medal so I gave it to him. My kids have got medals and I've given others away.

"The actual moment of winning is my highlight.

"It's a joy to see the fans' loyalty. Six years ago we were turning out maybe 200 supporters, now our average gate is about 1,375 at home. That's a club trying hard with the supporters and it's nice to give something back to them.

"But I think winning five trophies will be tough. Inverness will be very difficult because of the travelling. We will assess challenges when we get there and the team changes so much in my head. You make your decision and live and die by it.

"When do I rest players and who needs a rest? You think it through, look at the opposition but we have very capable players to come in and that's good thing.

"It could be an historic season for the club but you are talking about fine lines."

Goals from Howard Beverland, Jordan Owens and Declan Caddell fired the Crues 3-0 ahead after only 23 minutes. Johnny McMurray reduced the deficit but Paul Heatley made it 4-1 and Cathair Friel's late goal wasn't enough to stop Crusaders celebrations.

"I thought we won in pretty good style," added Baxter. "Winning any final is a big moment in your career and the players will enjoy that. I can see the hunger in the players' eyes even though they have achieved a lot."

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