Belfast Telegraph

Honesty and integrity are the values that guide Stephen Baxter

By Steven Beacom

Stephen Baxter is the Irish League great who kept the faith... in every sense.

And now the Crusaders manager is celebrating one of the finest achievements in modern day local football having inspired the north Belfast outfit to their first title success since 1997, when he was a feared striker for the Hatchetmen.

What makes the team's 2015 Danske Bank Premiership glory so noteworthy is that 10 years ago Baxter took over a struggling club spiralling towards relegation from the top flight into the Intermediate ranks of the game.

From there Baxter won promotion plus Irish Cup, Setanta Cup, League Cup and County Antrim Shield honours and at the weekend he completed the set by claiming the championship.

Well, nearly. The Crues aren't officially champions, but with a nine-point lead over nearest rivals Linfield and a superior goal difference with just three games left, rest assured the Gibson Cup trophy is heading to Seaview.

Influential players such as skipper Colin Coates, Davy Magowan, top scorer Jordan Owens, player of the season candidate Paul Heatley and find of the season Gavin Whyte deserve much credit for their part in the triumph.

So, too, a progressive board, led by chairman Stephen Bell, but the main man in all this has been the brilliant Baxter, who has built a strong mentality and a team filled with goals and exciting to watch.

The 49-year-old has done it all never losing sight of what he feels is the most important factor in his life - his Christian faith.

When Baxter was a player in the last Crusaders title winning side, he was surrounded by like minded individuals including revered manager Roy Walker. They became known as the 'God Squad'.

The landscape has changed somewhat in today's dressing room, with few of the current panel labelling themselves as Christians, but that has not stopped Baxter shaping their personalities on and off the pitch.

He reveals: "In the dressing room there is no bad language. That's not something I impose but you will find that because myself and the staff don't use it, nobody else does. Some may see that as strange in a football environment.

"When Roy was manager a lot was made about the 'God Squad' at Crusaders. We don't have that same element now but through people like Roy McDonald and myself that faith bond is still very much who we are and we always try to project certain values.

"My faith is everything. It always has been from age 19 to 49, the last 30 years. When you have that strength inside of you, it helps you take things in your stride.

"Football is brilliant and I love it and I give 110% to it to try and be successful, but my faith is my life. I've said before that I serve a higher authority and that has never changed.

"The best way to sum up how I feel about my faith is if you put the two league titles in 1997 and this year together, they wouldn't be 10% of where my faith is in perspective of my life."

That said, Baxter is as committed a manager as you will find and admits to having had sleepless nights during the title run in knowing how close the club was to completing a stunning transformation from an Intermediate side to Irish League champions.

"It has been 10 years of phenomenal achievement," says Baxter, who has brought up four fine children, Lindsay 25, Rachel 23, Hannah 19 and Jack 13, with his wife Lydia.

"The journey has been great because we were a relegated team and won promotion nine years ago and since then we have developed and developed and now with the league title we have done the clean sweep of all the trophies available to us."

Not many managers can say that. Baxter, whose closest friend is ex-Linfield team-mate and Ballymena United coach Lee Doherty, has achieved it his way.

"I played under a number of managers through the years and learnt a lot from all of them, both good and bad," he says.

"I decided if I ever went into management I would do it the way I liked to be managed with a smile on my face and with honesty and integrity. My aim has always been to treat people with respect and also make them fierce believers in themselves."

Considered an excellent man manager by his players, Baxter offers this insight into what is required to have a title winning team.

He stated: "Having good players is the key and then being able to manage them is vital.

"It also helps in this job to have a background in the financial world where negotiations over money are concerned and you need to understand the boundaries of the football club and what they have and what they don't.

"Six or seven years ago we didn't have much money but we had one or two financial backers, who know who they are, and spent it as wisely as we could, building a good side slowly and surely.

"I always adopted a policy to put two better players into the squad for the next season to continually improve and now we are champions. I feel very proud."

Belfast Telegraph


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