Belfast Telegraph

Irish League clubs must embrace training changes to gain Euro success: Baxter

 

Net gain: Rory Hale scored winner against Motherwell
Net gain: Rory Hale scored winner against Motherwell

By Graham Luney

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter says he's delighted with the progress the club has made since embracing a more full-time culture.

Baxter himself took on a full-time role as manager and the players are now spending more time on the pitch and raising their fitness levels.

Although the Crues' title defence faded last season, the north Belfast side were still able to grab half the domestic prizes on offer - the County Antrim Shield and Tennent's Irish Cup.

The Hatchetmen are also now experienced battlers on the continent and the funding that comes with European action is essential to drive the club forward.

It was always going to take time for the players to adjust to a new training regime but ahead of their Europa League first round tie with B36 Torshavn, Baxter is confident the full-time switch is paying off.

"After a fairly large upheaval of change, which is what we underwent, I am thrilled with what we have achieved to date from it," said the former Crues and Linfield striker.

"We are a year in and the players have acclimatised well.

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"We want to see further benefits from it in terms of strength and conditioning and the gym work.

"I'm really pleased with the full-time approach.

"We have learned a lot and will implement more changes.

"If we are being serious about the changes that need to happen in the game you can't stick to a Tuesday and Thursday night training process.

"You have to catch up with the things professional clubs are doing in Europe.

"You need pitch time, video time, recovery and fitness time. Clubs are improving in that area and a few other clubs are looking at making changes to be a better force in Europe.

"I don't think there's potential within the Irish League to say to players leave your jobs and we'll go one hundred per cent professional, the money isn't there for every club to do that, but in a fairly short space of time I'm delighted with what we have achieved."

Crusaders will face Premier League side Wolves in the Europa League second qualifying round if they can overcome B36 Torshavn.

Incentives don't come much bigger than that for an Irish League side.

The Crues will host their Faroese opponents at Seaview on July 11, with the away leg being staged a week later.

Baxter has fond memories of his side's battles with Fulham in the summer of 2011 but his modern day squad are better equipped for such a daunting challenge, even though few would bet on a shock result.

But there is no doubt Irish League sides competing in Europe understand that performances and results must improve to win back a lost European place.

The Northern Ireland Football League is set to lose one of its three Europa League places.

Uefa has ruled that associations ranked below 50th in the country coefficients table will be allocated two spots for the 2020/21 season.

Baxter accepts a tide needs to be turned but doesn't need reminded of the quality of some of the sides qualifying for European competition.

"I'm a realist when it comes to facts and figures," said Baxter.

"When you pitch two teams against each other and only one is a full-time professional side in mid-season with a budget worth millions of pounds, it's hard for an Irish league side to compete with that.

"You can't compare apples with oranges.

"This is our ninth go at Europe and we managed to get a win against Lithuania and Estonia teams.

"We didn't have a chance against the other teams, that's why I'm realistic.

"I think Irish League teams are raising the standards on and off the pitch.

"I think the clubs are improving their training and facilities and that has to be good for our game."

Rory Hale's 25th minute strike earned a 1-0 victory over Motherwell at Seaview on Wednesday night.

The Crues take on Warren Feeney's Ards at Seaview tomorrow (3pm) as they step up preparations for the Europa League tests.

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