Irish League is set for a 'hectic' title race but Crusaders can be right there, says Caddell
Influential midfielder Declan Caddell admits Crusaders had a season to forget last time out - even though they finished with two trophies in the boardroom.
Stephen Baxter's boys popped the bubbly after lifting the County Antrim Shield before they finished the campaign in a blaze of glory with an Irish Cup final win against Ballinamallard United at Windsor Park.
But the back slaps and high-fives failed to paper over the cracks as far as Caddell is concerned. He believes every team is judged on their performances in the Danske Bank Premiership and, by their own high standards, the Shore Road boys failed to deliver - they could only manage a fourth-place finish in the league table.
That's why he is demanding a whirlwind start when they entertain newly-promoted Carrick Rangers at Seaview on Saturday.
As the ambitious Crues made the transition to full-time football last year, Caddell reckons the bedding-in process is now complete and the teething problems have been solved.
"We were disappointed with our performance in the league last season, there is no question about that," said the long-serving Caddell, who enjoyed a testimonial game against a Rangers XI at Seaview over the summer.
"We are the first people to hold up our hands to say we got it wrong. Perhaps the first two or three months took its toll when we made the transition from part-time to full-time football.
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"It maybe zapped the boys a little bit. We were so far behind only two months in (in the league table), it was always going to be a massive ask to claw that back.
"We are under no illusions it will be tough this time, but we've got a year of the full-time set-up behind us so we have no excuses. We want to go into this league campaign and hit the ground running.
"Obviously there are a couple of boys not involved in the full-time set-up, but 95 per cent of the squad are. But they (the lads who are not involved) are professional about it. They do their own thing in terms of extra training to help them catch up. We are a close-knit group. The boys urge each other on to be the best they can be.
"Yes, it was great to win two trophies, but the league campaign was a sickener for us. It shows the standards we have now set at Seaview."
With the introduction of ambitious Larne and the emergence of Glentoran, who are benefiting from a financial injection from new investor Ali Pour, Caddell states that the title race this season could be one of the tightest for many years.
"It's going to be hectic," he added. "Take last season's top six, who have all beefed up their squads, and then add in Larne and Glentoran. It promises to be a massive challenge for every side.
"Over the last few years, the top teams have managed to pull away from the rest - that will not be the case this time. It's going to be competitive.
"We have Carrick Rangers first up. They are newly promoted and have signed a lot of players, so we don't quite know what to expect.
"They gave us hard games when they were in the Premiership the last time.
"We are under no illusions. But if we can produce the form which we have shown over the past two weeks, the organisation, the work rate and quality on the ball, it will make for a very interesting season."
Caddell insists the Crues approach the campaign in tip-top shape having enjoyed the recent experience of facing English Premier League giants Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Europa League.
"We are going into the league in good shape,'' he said. "The two games against Wolves helped improve fitness levels massively.
"It was a great experience. When you play in Europe, you want to play against the best. Wolves were the highest seeded team in the competition.
"It was a privilege to play against players of that calibre, and I think over the two legs we did ourselves proud.
"They showed what they are all about in the English Premier League last season and I think they are even stronger this time.
"They are forking out £30m for players, so that's the standard they are at. Ruben Neves and (Joao) Moutinho are two world-class players. Moutinho has over 100 caps for Portugal.
"We held our own over there (at Molineux), which was a massive result, and I think we gave them a little fright when we took the lead at Seaview.
"It would have been interesting if we had managed to hold out a bit longer. (Raul) Jimenez produced two magnificent finishes - we have no complaints.
"We've had our trips to the Faroe Islands (against B36 Torshavn) and to England to face Wolves, but now we are back to the bread and butter of the league campaign.
"We've played against top-class opponents and now we are looking forward.
"We can now go into the new campaign having enjoyed the best pre-season we've had in a long time.''