Belfast Telegraph

I love cut and thrust of games at festive football in the Irish League, says Stephen Baxter

 

Game ready: Stephen Baxter is relishing Crues’ madcap schedule
Game ready: Stephen Baxter is relishing Crues’ madcap schedule

By Alex Mills

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter believes his team's festive programme is a daunting challenge - but he wouldn't have it any other way.

The Shore Road men began their hectic schedule with a hard-fought point at Glentoran last Saturday, but they are due to make another journey across town to face the other half of Belfast's Big Two, Linfield, at Windsor Park tomorrow.

After that it's a derby showdown with rivals Cliftonville on Boxing Day before they entertain Dungannon Swifts 48 hours later.

"All the big games are now coming thick and fast, which began last week at Glentoran," admits Baxter. "We now have Linfield and Cliftonville coming up.

"They are all huge games and we are looking forward to the challenge. I think these big games are great for our league. The quality of the teams we now have is unbelievable, there is nothing easy.

"Glentoran have been a pale shadow of themselves over the last few years, from great teams that I know and remember. To see them emerge again, with quality players and new facilities, it's a club that knows what it is doing.

"It's brilliant for our league. With every team improving it gives the league a completely new platform. It's now a bigger stage, if you like.

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"Everyone wants a good, competitive league. That's why I think it's great that players are coming in from outside Northern Ireland, they are coming from all over Europe.

"I think it helps give us bigger and better profile. It's really good that we see all the teams improving the way they are. Competition is getting stronger, competing to sign players is a total new world."

Baxter is hoping to have centre-back Colin Coates - forced out of action at half-time last weekend because of injury - on board for the trip to Windsor Park.

"He had a back problem all week leading up to the game," added Baxter. "He received a bit of treatment, but he trained well on the Thursday, prior to the match.

"Colin had a bit of stiffness in his back and, as he was coming off (at half-time), his back went into a spasm. It was never going to work.

"It's a difficult one, lower back injuries are a curse. You think you are fine and then, all of a sudden, it goes again, so we'll see if he has any reaction prior to the Linfield game.

"Coatesy has struggled with his back for five or six years. Apparently it all stems from the mechanics of his feet, the way he walks.

"The good news was that Chris Hegarty was fit again, and he was the ideal replacement at The Oval, while Kyle Owens is also on the way back.

"We are going to need everyone for the days that lie ahead. It's a lot of games to play in such a short period of time, we'll have a lot of weary bodies to contend with.

"We will navigate our way through it, I'm sure. There is not a lot of difference between any of the top six clubs - they can all beat each other.

"A 38-game campaign will come down to the consistency of team selection around injury and suspension, so it's important to keep your better players fit."

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