Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter has declared that his team’s performance in the Europa Conference League against FC Basel at Seaview on Thursday was the best in his 17 years in charge.
It was a big statement, after the Shore Road boys gave one of Europe’s big guns the fright of their lives.
Even though the Crues bowed out of the tournament at the second qualifying round stage, Baxter was gushing with pride.
His team were always up against it because they returned to Belfast with a 2-0 deficit suffered seven days earlier at St Jakob-Park, courtesy of goals from Dan Nodoye and Adam Szalai.
Their hopes of a third-round place then nosedived when Liam Millar shot Alexander Frei’s team into a first-half lead in the return leg, but Billy Joe Burns — the hero of the first-round win over Bruno’s Magpies — levelled after the break. After that, the Crues were unlucky not to win it.
“We had them rocking in the last 10 minutes,” beamed Baxter. “I congratulated the team after the game. In all my time at Crusaders, something like 860-odd games, it was the best performance I have ever managed.
“The performance was stunning. I have achieved a lot in management as regards to winning trophies and have enjoyed some memorable wins, but that was the best of the lot.
“It was a complete performance, it was amazing. Our guys were disciplined, dedicated, organised and controlled. To do that against FC Basel is as good as it gets from my point of view.
“There were no failures. To me, every one of the boys got a 10 out of 10.
“Ben Kennedy was asked to play a certain disciplined role over the two legs and did it to perfection. It gave the three midfielders in behind him a platform to work from. Our back four, or back six which it was at times, which had Ross (Clarke) and Heats (Paul Heatley) working tirelessly, produced unbelievable disciplined displays. We denied them space, they were passing sidewards and backwards.
“Chris Hegarty and Daniel Larmour were marking one of the top centre-forwards in the world right now (Szalai). He never got a kick of the ball.
“Honestly, every single person got a 10 out of 10 in my book. I can’t tell you how pleased I was.
“Normally, you come away from games with five brilliant performances, three average and two poor. For me, they all got top marks.”
Baxter emphasised that Basel were no ordinary European team, adding: “They are giants in European football, a team of superstars. They are steeped in history, but little Crusaders stood toe-to-toe with them over two legs and gave them a real game. I was actually disappointed we didn’t win the game, because we had some good chances.
“Outside of the wonder goal they scored, we were always in the game. Our quality and our defensive shape were top-class. We set up to deny them the ball in the right areas and then hit them with pace and quality. We put them under all sorts of pressure.
“Basel were running the clock down. They were making a few substitutions and they were lying down when they had the chance.
“I don’t think they liked it when we kicked them because they were kicking us plenty. We stood up to them and we matched them in many ways.
“It’s a proud moment for our football club. To see the reaction of our fans singing ‘Stand up for the Hatchetmen’, the whole stadium stood up and sang the song, it doesn’t get much better. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They were proud of the players — it was sensational.”