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David Jeffrey and I are the best of pals, but unfortunately only one of us can win the Irish Cup, says Stephen Baxter

Crusaders boss relishing latest challenge with Sky Blues counterpart

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D-day: Stephen Baxter (right) looks forward to the Irish Cup final, alongside Ben Kennedy (left) and Billy Joe Burns

D-day: Stephen Baxter (right) looks forward to the Irish Cup final, alongside Ben Kennedy (left) and Billy Joe Burns

Stuart Dallas was a phenomenal player for Crusaders

Stuart Dallas was a phenomenal player for Crusaders

Paul Heatley with the Irish Cup in 2019. Credit: INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

Paul Heatley with the Irish Cup in 2019. Credit: INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

�INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

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D-day: Stephen Baxter (right) looks forward to the Irish Cup final, alongside Ben Kennedy (left) and Billy Joe Burns

It’s tempting to say that football is all about the players but today’s Irish Cup Final between Ballymena United and Crusaders serves up another intriguing reunion on the touchline.

United boss David Jeffrey and Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter must respect and fear one another in equal measure.

The similarities between the two close friends are remarkable but they are enemies in today’s fight for Cup glory and a lucrative European place.

Both men are Irish League legends, former team-mates and title winners – both as a player and manager.

They are two of the domestic game’s more experienced warriors who fully understand the euphoria of victory and the heartbreak of defeat.

They are also masters of the rebuild. In this game you have to constantly evolve, freshen squads and embrace new ways of working in the relentless mission for success.

And despite being serial winners as managers, both Jeffrey and Baxter never managed to earn an Irish Cup winner’s medal, despite playing in finals.

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There is huge respect between the duo and while most observers will conclude that Crusaders have the greater squad depth, only a fool underestimates a team managed by David Jeffrey.

Jeffrey, a supporter, player, captain, assistant boss and a legendary manager of Linfield, brought an incredible 31 trophies to Windsor Park including nine league titles, seven Irish Cups, six League Cups, six County Antrim Shields, one Setanta Cup and a clean sweep thrown in for good measure.

At Ballymena United he won the League Cup in 2017, has secured a top two league finish and European success but the club’s first Irish Cup win since 1989 would be one of his finest achievements.

The defeat to the Glentoran in the 2020 decider remains a ghost to be exorcised.

Baxter steered the Crues back into the top flight and more than 850 games later, he’s won every honour going including a Setanta Cup and the Irish Cup in 2009 and 2019.

Jeffrey is three years older than Baxter who isn’t alone in looking up to the Sky Blues boss as a hero.

The players can have no excuses about the preparation. They are given all the help they need to go out and deliver.

“For myself and David to be involved in this final, it’s phenomenal, it’s magic,” says Baxter.

“David Jeffrey is a lifelong friend of mine. We go back to when he came back from Manchester United and signed for Linfield. I was just a wee boy signing my first contract at Ards at 19 and David was a hero in my eyes.

“We played our first game against each other and David headed my ear instead of the ball - and probably purposely. I’d a black ear for a fortnight!

“He was a tough, tough guy and a great player. Then a couple of years later I joined Linfield and he was the captain and we became very good friends, along with four or five other lads.

“Years later we became professional rivals as managers and I had to learn from him as a young manager. I was three years behind him so he was always quite a bite ahead of him. His brilliant teams used to hammer my rookie sides. You’re always learning from him and I always wanted to get close to what he was doing and slowly but surely we got on top of them a couple of times.

“You can’t be best buddies with your rivals when you are trying to beat one another but he’s an immense person who I respect so much.”

There must also be so much empathy among the managers as they know how stressful and demanding this job can be.

“It is a stressful business and most of us don’t have much hair left,” admitted the Crues chief.

“Football is a stress bucket. My wife thinks there’s something seriously wrong with me and she’s right.

“You can’t rest in this game or you will miss something.

“I’m focused on the next game or who we are trying to sign.

“The day to day things don’t change. It constantly continues.

“You never sit back and say what have I done, no Irish League manager does that.

“You celebrate for a day then it’s back to work, it’s relentless.

“The milestones are nice but they are superficial. You don’t take it in. Your DNA is are we sleeping, what have we missed? You have to be on it all the time, stay in the moment and move with the times.

“Everyone needs to fight hard and you need a great desire to win. That’s what football is about to me. If you don’t have that you shouldn’t be at my club.

“We were taught that under Roy Coyle at Linfield, you need desire as well as talent. If you have that inside you, you can go places and we are working hard at it.”

When he was at Linfield, Jeffrey was able to rebuild the squad and go again while maintaining that desire for success. Baxter has needed to face those challenges on the Shore Road.

“It’s been incredible the different teams we have had and over 17 years there have been players who have kicked us on,” he reflects.

“I can remember signing Aaron Black, Gareth McKeown, Eamon Doherty, Mark Dickson and a lad called Stuart Dallas. I said to people to watch out for Dallas because he was going to be special.

“We went on to win the Irish Cup in 2009.

“When we won the first Irish league title, we signed Barry Molloy and Stepehen O’Flynn and neither of them could in the team. They were on the bench quite a bit but they were big name players and they kicked the other boys on to stay in the team.

“Signings can help you or backfire but we brought in Gavin Whyte out of the blue then you had Whyte, Heatley and Owens scoring about 100 goals.

“The best title we won was in 2018 when we fought off a challenge from Coleraine. What a title we won that year, we matched them every stride of the way.”

Baxter came in for criticism for making changes for the Premiership game against Linfield but he’s had to prioritise giving players game time ahead of this test today.

“The squad is looking great,” he added. “The players needed to play games and I had to mix the squad through those games.

“I got stick for changes for the Linfield game but the team was phenomenal. The balancing act was worked out to suit us and I was able to freshen up the squad, while keeping momentum going.

“I found it a little disrespectful some of the criticism we received about the Linfield game. We had some of the best players in the country in our team.

“You want to have your players fit and available for a Cup final.”

There’s one legendary Irish League manager who will be smiling tonight. The harsh reality of Cup football is that someone has to suffer.


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