Belfast Telegraph

Irish League title race already has a 'pressure cooker' feel, says Crusaders boss

Glentoran v Crusaders, Danske Bank Premiership, The Oval, Tomorrow, 3.00pm

Rising pressure: Stephen Baxter expects another tight title showdown
Rising pressure: Stephen Baxter expects another tight title showdown
Mick McDermott

By Alex Mills

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter believes the race for the Danske Bank Premiership title has become so intense that every game now has a 'pressure cooker' feel about it.

The Shore Road boys know a thing or two about lifting the Gibson Cup, having been crowned champions three times in the last five years.

They have won it at a canter, but they've also experienced the pressure of a final-day shoot-out.

Baxter reckons the current campaign could well be the tightest yet - the top four have all had a turn at leading the way, with Linfield now in pole position.

The north Belfast side recovered from an October wobble when they lost to Coleraine and drew with Glenavon and Ballymena United, but still approached this month sitting pretty at the summit.

However, a shock defeat by David Jeffrey's previously struggling Sky Blues at Seaview last Saturday was enough to topple the Crues from their lofty spot.

With merely five points separating the top five clubs, Baxter's pressure cooker theory appears to be right on the money.

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"It's the mark of how many quality teams are around the league this season, there are no easy points to be had," he said. "You have to go out and earn those points every single week.

"You can't afford to take anything for granted. That was highlighted at the weekend when we were beaten by Ballymena United, who hadn't won in their previous 10 games.

"They just don't turn up and say, 'Here is three easy points' - it just doesn't work that way. You must fight hard week in, week out to get anything out of a game.

"Our guys are working incredibly hard, I have nothing but praise for them. We may have lost last week against Ballymena but I thought they were excellent.

"There were some good performances in there. We passed the ball really well and did what was asked of them, so I didn't go away disappointed even in defeat because of the team's performance. On another day we could have won the game quite comfortably."

Following that defeat, the pressure will be cranked up even further on Baxter's troops tomorrow when they make the short trip to face Mick McDermott's rejuvenated Glentoran at The Oval - a team also right up there in the title mix.

The heavy investment by new owner Ali Pour, which allowed McDermott to delve heavily into the transfer market - he has brought in players from Croatia, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and England - has paid an almost immediate dividend.

"It's another massive game for both clubs," added Baxter.

"What happened at Glentoran has been magnificent and has been great for the league in general.

"Glentoran is a massive club with a big fanbase - it's an institution of Irish League football. Even when the club was in the doldrums for a few years, we never got it easy at The Oval.

"This will be another battle. There is nothing easy in this league, the pressure is on in every game. Thank goodness we had no midweek commitment.

"There has been a lot of football played, so we needed to get a few bodies rested and fit again. We have had a lot of injuries about the club. I'm sure every manager is in the same position.

"There is a big Christmas programme coming up. I will look to try to get one or two players rested ahead of that. Every squad is going to be stretched, we all have something like four games in nine days. We'll meet that challenge when it comes around."

Fixtures to come

Tomorrow (3.00pm): Ballymena United v Dungannon Swifts, Glentoran v Crusaders, Institute v Glenavon, Larne v Coleraine, Warrenpoint Town v Linfield.

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