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Shrewd Stephen Baxter is ready for the big tests now


Top of the class: Jordan Stewart and Gavin Whyte celebrate after the latter’s dazzling run and finish

Top of the class: Jordan Stewart and Gavin Whyte celebrate after the latter’s dazzling run and finish

Top of the class: Jordan Stewart and Gavin Whyte celebrate after the latter’s dazzling run and finish

A spot of homework helped Crusaders to another away-day victory and ensured that the snorting breath of the menacing champions can be felt on the back of Linfield necks.

Stephen Baxter revealed one of the secrets of his success following his side's successful, if somewhat fraught, victory over Ballymena United on Saturday - a dossier on opposing sides.

It was a cracking encounter, more of a boxing bout than a football match as the teams exchanged blows throughout a pulsating 90 minutes, Ballymena twice coming from behind to level firstly through Allan Jenkins' glancing header that cancelled out Paul Heatley's second-minute penalty.

Matthew Tipton's woeful spot-kick miss was a big turning point, Jordan Owens punishing the Sky Blues with a thundering header before Gary Thompson levelled in the 69th minute but just when it looked like the champ was on the ropes, a lightweight landed the knockout blow.

Gavin Whyte floated like a butterfly from the halfway line, leaving a trail of floundering defenders in his wake, before stinging like a bee with a rapier-like finish and things were neatly wrapped up with Jordan Forsythe finally breaking United resistance with 13 minutes left to play.

"Ballymena were a little more direct, they came at us hard and put a lot of balls into good areas and were up for the fight but the wee bit of quality shone through in the end," said Baxter, whose side are now just two points behind Linfield.

"We've got off to a reasonable start. Managers really look at the first 11 games, the first round of games, and then assess everybody and look at the strengths and weaknesses of everybody.

"There's an awful lot of work that goes on behind the scenes where people are watched maybe two or three times and you build up a dossier on all of that. We look at all of that and map it.

"We are pleased with where we are at, a couple of points off the top with one more game to go and then we'll see where it takes us.

"It's going in the right direction for us. You're going to come to Ballymena, Coleraine, Ballinamallard, Dungannon, Warrenpoint, when you come to their grounds every point will be a hard earned point so we're under no illusions, this is a tough, tough league.

"We won't get carried away with winning a few games, we must keep our foot to the pedal at all times, respect all the opposition we play and give it our best shot.

"I don't see too many weak teams out there, none of those points are handed to you and you have to earn every single one of them."

One of the key men for him in the win was Richard Clarke, who pulled the strings in midfield, and he appreciated the importance of the win and having mesmeric talent such as Whyte to play alongside.

"It was important we won at Ballymena. It was more of a battling performance than a classy one but we'll take that," he said.

"We were talking about it in the dressing room that those who were in the stadium certainly got their money's worth, six goals and the game was end to end with plenty of chances for both teams and thankfully we ran out winners.

"We talked about it at half-time that we weren't at our best but we were still in front and in the second-half Ballymena maybe had more of the play and got level but with the likes of Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley in the team, they can pull a goal out of anywhere and Gavin's goal was the catalyst for the win."

For United boss Glenn Ferguson it was a case of what might have been having witnessed his side's seven-match unbeaten run come a cropper.

"We have to take the positives as I thought for large periods of we matched them, have missed a penalty and hit the post twice and the crossbar, we have proved we can match them and create chances," he said.

"I don't think it was a 4-2 game to be honest, probably over the course of the game they shaded it on chances, but neither keeper had a great lot to do. Crusaders don't concede a lot of goals and on another day we could have scored four or five."

Ballymena: Nelson, Ervin, Ruddy (Gawley, 80 mins), Rodger, Taylor, T Kane, E Kane (Thompson, 58 mins), Jenkins, Shevlin, Tipton (Magennis, 85 mins), Cushley. Unused subs: McNally, Taggart.

Crusaders: O'Neill, Mitchell, McClean, Robinson, Burns, Snoddy, Whyte (Molloy, 85 mins), Clarke, Owens, Forsythe, Heatley. Unused subs: Magowan, O'Carroll, O'Flynn, McKibbin.

Man of the match: Richard Clarke

Match rating: 9/10

Referee: Ian McNabb (Glengormley)

Belfast Telegraph