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Full Time

More Irish League clubs will go professional to compete with Linfield: Baxter

 

By Billy Weir

Stephen Baxter lifted his third Gibson Cup as Crusaders manager on Saturday but for him the job is just beginning.

With the backing of the club, he is taking the bold step of becoming a full-time manager with the aim of continuing his side's success on the pitch, but helping guide them to even greater things off it.

He is in the process of closing down his sports shop and will make football, something that has dominated his life for decades, his livelihood.

And it is a step that he thinks more and more clubs will take over the next few years as they try to keep nibbling away at title-winning Crusaders' ankles.

"Linfield were unstoppable from Christmas last year, they went on a phenomenal run, and Coleraine and ourselves have left Linfield, Cliftonville and Glenavon in our wake," he said.

"That's the way it should be. There was Belfast domination of this league over the last few years and now you have Coleraine, Glenavon are an excellent team, Linfield and Cliftonville will improve again, Coleraine will kick on again.

"This is the level of the game we now have in Northern Ireland. We have our full-time plans in place for what we want to do next year.

"Michael O'Neill made mention of that in the last year or two on the improvements that have been made.

"And with the work these part-time players have been putting in, it has become like a professional game and that's why we need to examine that.

"We've seen the Dundalk model, the Derry City model, we know the type of thing we're working towards and I think you'll see that improvement now in Irish League football.

"I think you're going to see a lot of teams go in that direction, you'll see teams maybe like Coleraine and Ballymena putting plastic pitches in to improve the quality.

"You can't play on mud baths that then turn into rock-hard leg-breakers. If you're going to raise the standard of the game you've got to raise the standard of the football pitches to play on and the facilities.

"Our league is improving ten-fold I think, it really is, and I think that it's only good for the game that we see Linfield, Coleraine, Cliftonville; and I hope we see a re-emergence of Glentoran and the country teams like Ballymena and Glenavon, and Dungannon have great players too and won a trophy this season.

"That can only be healthy for our game, people put a lot in behind the scenes, more so than we did when we played. We won the league playing here all those years ago for Crusaders and the improvement that has gone on off the pitch is phenomenal."

It was fitting that the Crues won the Danske Bank Premiership crown after a nail-biting win over Ballymena United at Warden Street.

Baxter knows exactly what the players went through having won the title as a player for the Hatchetmen at the same venue back in 1995.

But the game is vastly changed since then, although Baxter admits that he never expected to still be managing the team all these years later.

"I never set out to do any of this, it's just a pathway you find your way into somehow, and it's like a drug, it's getting more and more and more," he revealed.

"I've now signed this professional deal and I'm closing my business down to try and develop the club. There's a lot to be done. This is going to be a new challenge for all of us. I feel like I am just getting started.

"I remember the conversation when Jim Semple rang me and he said, 'Will you come and give us a hand? We're in an awful mess', and I said, 'I'll come for nine games and give you a pull out and see what happens', and it has just gone from nothing to something.

"We have to work really hard at what we do because we are still trying to compete with Linfield.

"Make no mistake about it, Linfield are the big noise in Northern Ireland with regards to the stadium, finances, support base and for teams like ourselves and Cliftonville who are taking titles off them speaks volumes for what's going on."

But just like Crusaders' success on the pitch, it has been a real team effort behind the scenes, with chairman Stephen Bell stepping down from his role this summer.

"I recognise the hard work that needs to go in over the piece to win these, the finance, the support of the club, the chairman and people around that," added Baxter.

"Tommy Whiteside has been inspirational in our football club for three or four years, helping me achieve the players that we have brought in and getting the finance to do that, so he deserves so much credit for what he's done.

"Stephen Bell, our chairman, is stepping down this year and these people have trusted me with everything. They never questioned me and you can't speak highly enough of them, they just let me get on with it.

"We all have our moments, and we do fall out over things, but that is called passion and drive and enthusiasm and a will to win, and you're never going to get it easy all the time and if I'm not happy with something I'll tell them.

"All of those things are part and parcel of the game and we continue to strive to get better and not sit back. We must continue to put strong building blocks around the club because you can very easily, like Leicester, win it and then fall away.

"You have to put the right things in place, look after the contracts and look after the players."

Somehow, with Baxter sailing the ship on a full-time basis, you can't see them being holed anytime soon.

Stephen Baxter's football honours so far

As a player

Linfield: Irish League (2): 1988/89, 1992/93, Gold Cup (3): 1987/88, 1988/89, 1989/90, Irish League Cup (1): 1991/92

Lisburn Distillery: Gold Cup (1): 1993/94

Crusaders: Irish League (2): 1994/95, 1996/97, Gold Cup (1): 1995/96, Irish League Cup (1): 1996/97

Glenavon: Mid-Ulster Cup (1): 1998/99

As a manager

Crusaders: NIFL Premiership (3): 2014/15, 2015/16, 2017/18, Irish Cup (1): 2008/09, Setanta Cup (1): 2012, Irish League Cup (1): 2011/12, County Antrim Shield (2): 2009/10, 2017/18, IFA Intermediate League (1): 2005/06, IFA Intermediate League Cup (1): 2005/06, Steel & Sons Cup (1): 2005/06

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