Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders boss would accept Irish League season tweak 'in theory'

By Gareth Hanna

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter says he would support a change to the structure of the Irish League season 'in theory' to support performance in UEFA competition.

Baxter is currently preparing his side for their Europa League tie against Latvian side FK Liepaja and he says a 'tweak' to the timing of the season could have its benefits. He did warn, however, that any alterations would have to be well considered before being implemented.

"In theory I would adopt change but it needs to be rational and thought-through," he said. "We are a part-time league and there's no point changing things if it wouldn't work for half your team. We have to take into account the marching season as well and how that would impact it. All of these things need to be discussed.

"Ultimately, Europe is becoming a bigger deal for all of what I would call the smaller leagues. There are countries already adopting (changes) - the Latvian team that we play this week are already in their season. Obviously the league in the south made that decision a number of years ago and can provide a good barometer as to how successful it has been as to numbers and how it has all worked out."

The Irish FA on Monday morning unveiled their new five year strategy, which included a goal to help raise the Northern Ireland Football League's ranking into the top 40 in Europe. In order to do that, the association has proposed a 'tweak' to the timing of the Irish League season that would ensure teams are playing competitive fixtures in May and June to heighten match fitness in preparation for Champions League and Europa League qualifiers.

READ MORE: Irish FA propose 'tweak' to Irish League season in new five year strategy

"I would be the type of person who says we have to move with change and if that is the change that is coming long-term, we have to embrace it. I would say that we will see the adoption of some sort of summer football with a view to our European performance improving," said Baxter.

Exactly what those changes would entail has not yet been announced and as Baxter indicated, there are still several options to consider.

He continued: "We're playing pretty much all year anyway. We had a seven week lay-off this summer. If you have a break in December, we have to look at it in terms of the Boxing Day derby fixtures, which are important.

"They are important for fans and for clubs. A lot of it comes down to climate as well. We've been pretty fortunate in recent seasons but when there is ice on the ground and games can't be played, they may work it out and say the Boxing Day games are something that have to be forfeited. Personally, I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. You can't have a winter league just to protect that fixture.

"Alternatively, they could take a four or six week break after those Boxing Day games and then come back in to keep the season going into May or June."

Crusaders take on FK Liepaja in the first leg at Seaview on Thursday (kick off 7.45pm), before travelling to Latvia for the return leg a week later.

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