Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders and Mallards up for the Cup

My boys will only go down as legends if they become serial winners: Baxter

Facing off: Crues boss Stephen Baxter (left) and Mallards manager Harry McConkey
Facing off: Crues boss Stephen Baxter (left) and Mallards manager Harry McConkey

By Graham Luney

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter has challenged his players not to live on past glories.

Baxter wants his men to be 'serial winners' as only then will they be considered club heroes and legends.

The Seaview supremo admits he is stunned by the club's trophy record since he masterminded their last Irish Cup victory in 2009. That triumph, a first Irish Cup win since 1968, was the springboard for further glory days.

But even Baxter could not have predicted three league championships, a League Cup, two County Antrim Shields and one Setanta Cup.

Ballinamallard United will today stand between the club and a fourth Irish Cup.

There has been no 'settling for what we have' mentality on the Shore Road and Baxter constantly demands improved standards.

"We would like to have won a double at times but we failed at the semi-final stages in recent years," said Baxter.

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"But we won those league championships, so we have been on a decent run of winning trophies most years.

"We are really enjoying riding that wave of challenging for trophies year in, year out. That's the mark of a good team, being there all the time, challenging for the big trophies. That's what we want to do, and that's what will make these players heroes and legends for years to come.

"But we have only won the Irish Cup three times in the club's history, and won the league title seven times. So we are not rich like Linfield and Glentoran's success, and a few others. So this era we are currently in is what we are setting for ourselves. I have said to the boys, 'You have to be serial winners'. They can't think this is a one-off, the great players are remembered for being serial winners.

"That's what great players like the Billy McNeills of Celtic, and others they talk about, do. They become serial winners. And that's what I am telling my guys to become - serial winners."

Baxter knows his men will have to carry the weight of expectation on their shoulders. They are firm favourites to see off the Championship side but football's unpredictable nature is the reason why we love it.

"We don't get drawn into things like 'our name is on the trophy' or destiny or anything like that," he added. "I am not a believer in any of that. You earn everything you get. You have to go out and perform and play for that trophy.

"Nobody hands it to you and Ballinamallard will want it just as much as us. If we want it more than them, we have to fight tooth and nail to get it. There are no names on the trophy until the final whistle sounds. Our name is certainly not on it.

"It might be more difficult given we don't know as much about Ballinamallard. But as professional football clubs do, you have to do your homework and watch and analyse the opposition and cater our training around a game of this magnitude. We have done all that and training has been good.

"The atmosphere in the camp is good and we are ready for it. At the end of the day there is a trophy on the line. When there is a trophy there you have to make sure your boys are ready, and I can assure you my boys are ready."

Harry's game for fairytale ending after minnows' magical odyssey

Ballinamallard United manager Harry McConkey insists the romance of the Irish Cup is alive and kicking.

The Mighty Ducks' progress to today's final against Crusaders has been dubbed a fairytale and it could yet end in the club's finest hour.

Even a place in the Europa League could be the Mallards' reward if they can slay Danske Bank Premiership big hitters Crusaders.

McConkey joked that he has had to suffer a lot in the Ferney Park dugout but this journey the club has travelled has restored his faith in humanity as well as the competition.

"There's a great sense of romance and the money all disappears for people," said Harry.

"For supporters it's a fantasy world they're living in right now.

"It's great when you get this bit of colour on the landscape when these minnows come out of nowhere instead of it being Linfield, Coleraine or Glentoran all the time.

"We've spent all year looking up at people, it's so lovely to see people looking up at us.

"It's amazing to have gone from the bottom of the league to this and gain that sort of momentum and allow people to enjoy their sport again and lift a whole club and a community," he added.

"The values that we need in our country right now are desperately lacking, if we had that type of leadership, that fun and sense of family spirit and empathy and understanding for each other we would be in a much better place.

"We're going to enjoy Saturday and bring everyone to the table. It's lovely to see everyone who wants to come with us. We'll have people from both sides of the community, from all sporting backgrounds, from across the border in Sligo.

"We have a number of sports stars from Fermanagh who have achieved so much in their sport, but are so pleased to see others from the county do the same.

"We've done about 3,500 miles already this season, so it won't be a problem if we get into Europe!

"We have been round Europe and back again just to get here."

It's easy to forget that United's poor start to the season left them sweating on their place in the Championship. Irish Cup success never entered any thoughts down Fermanagh way.

"This is great," admitted Harry, still trying to comprehend his side's achievement.

"I got a bit of a taste of something like this being on duty with the junior international team in Europe.

"Speaking to the press via an interpreter, I was doing my Michael O'Neill impression!

"But the profile we have had over the last few weeks has been madness. There's a high profile with this and I have found parts of it quite scary, but it has been lovely to say to myself 'you're nearly 60 and you thought this would never happen and to enjoy it'.

"It's a very special time for the club. Every time you do something in life you put a marker down, whether that's an Irish Junior Cup when I was at Lisbellaw, an Intermediate Cup when I was at Ballyclare or winning an Ulster Cup as a player at Coleraine, then you come to this level and international football.

"It's lovely when you get success, people around you enjoy it, they really enjoy that feelgood factor."

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