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Crusaders can taste title joy

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Roy Walker and Stephen Baxter celebrate the Crues title win in 1997

Roy Walker and Stephen Baxter celebrate the Crues title win in 1997

Roy Walker and Stephen Baxter celebrate the Crues title win in 1997

We have just hit the halfway mark in the Danske Bank Premiership and Crusaders are top of the table so the big Irish League question is, can the Hatchetmen be a cut above the rest come May?

Stephen Baxter and his men are holding off Linfield at the summit with a superior goal difference but do they have the mental toughness to see the job through?

Baxter was banging in the goals back in 1995 and 1997 when the Crues last lifted the Gibson Cup so the Shore Road side are being steered by a man who knows what it takes to get across the line.

But in recent reasons it's been a case of close, but no cigar for the north-Belfast side. Crusaders, who also won the title back in 1973 and 1976, finished runner-up to Linfield 2011 and then Cliftonville earlier this year.

So can they reach the promised land this time round?

Well qualified to comment is Roy Walker, the man who masterminded those two glorious championship triumphs in the 1990s. The Seaview legend now believes that history is repeating itself.

Walker has a feeling that the missing pieces needed to complete a title-winning jigsaw have finally been found.

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"I think Crusaders now have a great chance of winning the title," said Walker. "They have nothing to fear. Stephen (Baxter) has a strong squad with plenty of experience and hunger. If they can retain those levels of enthusiasm and optimism and never worry about who they are facing they can achieve something special.

"I am not at all surprised that they are sitting top of the table. I think this development has been a few years in the making."

Only time will tell whether the Crusaders players have the hunger and desire to complete their mission but Walker gets flashbacks to his 1995 heroes when he watches the class of 2013.

"Two seasons before that title success in 1995 we lost a very tight title race to Linfield," added the former Ballymena United and Glenavon boss.

"It was so close that my memory is telling me goal difference was the deciding factor. I remember people saying to us at the time 'you may never come this close again' and that was a big motivation for us to go on and do it.

"I can see parallels with what happened in 1995 because we were determined to win it after coming so close previously.

"The first title win was sealed on April 1 at Ballymena, a 2-0 win and Stephen Baxter scored the first goal.

"I can remember signing Stephen at the start of that season. He was in my lounge and I said to him 'If you sign for us, we will win the league'. He did sign and we did win the league.

"Stephen was a tall lad, could produce a good header and had two good feet.

"He had had a difficult time at Distillery after spending a few years at Linfield but he found a new lease of life at the Crues and he struck up a very effective striking partnership with Glenn Hunter.

"Syd Burrows was our captain, a brilliant trainer, a bubbly effervescent lad and top player. The league title is the one prize that has eluded Stephen and his players to date and as Roy Coyle has remarked, the championship is the yardstick for our clubs.

"What governs real success or failure is whether you can finish higher than everyone and Crusaders have been knocking on the door for some time."

Crusaders suffered relegation to the Intermediate League in 2005 but that family spirit the club is so proud of came to the fore and the Hatchetmen are now an inspiration to other clubs who suffer turbulent times.

"There is a great togetherness there and that's one thing Crusaders fans understand, particularly the older generation," added Walker. "The supporters are part of the fabric of the club, there's a family culture and identity there you don't get at every club. When I met Crues chairman Stephen Bell at Glenavon he greeted me with not just a handshake but a warm, genuine embrace.

"The club suffered relegation to the Intermediate League but falling down does not make you a failure – staying down does.

"These experiences don't crumble you, they humble you and the club bounced back.

"Without a vision the people will perish and Crusaders have transformed Seaview into a modern ground and responded to commercial realities by putting down the artificial surface. Not everyone likes these pitches but more of them will be put down."

The modern day Crues team that lines out against Glentoran at Seaview this afternoon is now one of the most feared sides in the league after embarking on an incredible 22-match unbeaten run – a club record.

"I think Crusaders is a great club for a manager to be at," added Walker.

"It's great to see Gary McCutcheon, a player I know well, still playing at a top club and scoring goals while at the back players like Colin Coates, David Magowan and Paul Leeman still have a ferocious appetite for the game."

Walker admits it's "highly unlikely" he will return to management, though he is always interested in supporting worthwhile projects.

Should Crusaders win the league for the first time since 1997, expect to see him join in the celebrations.


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