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Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter happy for pundits to be smitten by new Irish League darlings

Crues boss gives his blessing to title challengers being toasted elsewhere

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Quietly confident: Stephen Baxter has no issue with Crusaders flying below the radar

Quietly confident: Stephen Baxter has no issue with Crusaders flying below the radar

�INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

Quietly confident: Stephen Baxter has no issue with Crusaders flying below the radar

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter is more than happy that his side are underdogs in this season's title race and has used an analogy about romance to prove his point.

Under the astute Baxter, the Crues have won league championships in 2015, 2016 and 2018 and, along with Linfield, have been considered the team to beat in recent times.

Things have changed this term and, while the Blues are favourites, the bookies fancy Coleraine to finish above the Crues, while Glentoran and Larne, aided by investment from Ali Pour and Kenny Bruce respectively, are being talked about as potential challengers by some pundits, leaving the Seaview men feeling distinctly like dark horses in the race.

Ahead of tonight's home game versus derby rivals Cliftonville, Baxter is content that few are talking about his players as potential top dogs, though there is no doubt he believes they have what it takes to be up there once again.

"It is great being the underdog. I could live with that week in, week out, year in, year out," stated Baxter.

"It's like getting a new girlfriend for you boys. All of a sudden you are all sweet on someone with dangly ear-rings and lipstick. Long may it continue. So keep talking about them all and we'll get on with it.

"I'm very happy with the panel of players I have and we will be there or thereabouts," he added in a convincing tone.

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Football is a squad game these days and Crusaders still have one of the best in the business. Amongst those on the bench last Saturday for a 1-0 win at Warrenpoint were Jamie McGonigle, Rory Hale, David Cushley, new signing Adam Lecky and centre-back Chris Hegarty, who is likely to play against the Reds in place of Billy Joe Burns, who was red carded late on at Milltown.

Baxter said: "We had Billy Joe sent off, so that means he is going to be suspended, and you must have ready made replacements of the same quality and same level. All of our players are more than capable.

"I could have played three different teams against Warrenpoint and four different shapes, with different players in those shapes, and they would have been equally as good.

"We had a strong bench last weekend. David Cushley, what a wonderful footballer he is; Rory Hale is a top footballer, Adam Lecky the same and Jamie McGonigle is quality, too. These are all guys who can deliver."

Baxter appreciates north Belfast derbies rarely take place in the second weekend of the season but, with Cliftonville having overcome Glentoran last week, it is a chance for one to open up with six points from two matches.

"It's an important game and a north Belfast derby that is coming very early in the season," he added.

"We always look forward to the game at Seaview against Cliftonville. I'm delighted there were fans inside the stadium at Warrenpoint because without fans it is not great. It is fabulous to have fans in our stadiums.

"There has been a lot of work put in by all the Irish League clubs and I must pay tribute to Warrenpoint for last week's game and their communication with us. Likewise, we will communicate well when people come to our ground.

"A football match is something for us to look forward to on Saturday with everything that is going on in the world at the moment. Our game is very dear to all of us and it is great to have it back."

crusaders v cliftonville

Seaview, Tonight, 7.45pm


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