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'Play the game as grown ups': Stephen Baxter says Irish League must move on from fractious talks to get back to its best



Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter says he hopes clubs can draw a line under the messy and sometimes contentious process of curtailing the league season and begin to work constructively together to get the Irish League flying again.

Despite prolonged talks over the summer, the Northern Ireland Football League and clubs were unable to agree on a fair way of ending the league season.

Attempts to play two further rounds of league fixtures behind closed doors went up in smoke and although the three remaining Irish Cup matches should be played later this month, the Danske Bank Premiership campaign was frozen at the 31-game mark.

Linfield, four points clear of Coleraine, were awarded the title, Institute relegated and Portadown promoted after an independent third party determined the final standings using a mathematical formula.

Clubs held several meetings but tensions arose in discussions over how the season should be curtailed, who should be nominated for Europe and whether Uefa money should be shared. NIFL and the clubs now need to reach agreement on next season and Baxter hopes peace will break out this time.

"I'm always one for people fighting their corner and I understood all the arguments," said the Crues chief. "But once the negotiations are concluded it's like a football match, you can sometimes get upset but once the final whistle blows it's over and you have to move on. We must put to bed what happened, we have had our say, there's no going back.

"Let's move on and play the game as proper grown-ups."

Baxter added: “You shake hands and honour people as you should do. If you feel strongly about something you fight to the last breath of it but once a decision is made you move on.”

Crusaders players returned to training last Thursday in preparation for either the start of next season or a new Europa League challenge. Baxter’s men will feature in the preliminary round, single-leg ties on August 20 if Coleraine lift the Irish Cup later this month.

“The early indications are we could see a September start so we’ve got to be ready for whatever challenge awaits,” added Baxter. “Hopefully we can soon get an idea of rough start dates. I’d like to see the 38-game league programme be maintained and I can see that happening if we start in September. You could slot in a few midweek games.

“You could have a 31-game league without a split or a 22-game league with a split giving you 27 games in total. The start date will determine the number of games we are able to play.

“I’m not anxious about that, we will look forward to playing football again and it shouldn’t be that far away. It’s important the players are tuned into the programmes we are giving them.”

Ballymena United will face Coleraine and Glentoran wrestle with Cliftonville in the two Irish Cup semi-finals at Windsor Park on July 27 but there will be no supporters in attendance.

The Irish FA will then seek guidance from the NI Executive before any decision allowing fans to attend the Cup final at Windsor Park on July 31.

There will be a few departures from Seaview with Matthew Snoddy, Sean Ward and Kyle Owens leaving the club.

Glentoran legend Paul Leeman is also leaving the coaching staff for “personal reasons”.

Baxter added: “Paul’s son Zach is doing well at the football and together with his work, being the ultra professional he is, he has felt the pressure of being on time for all the demands of football.

“We will leave the door open for a good friend and wish him every success. Matthew and Kyle have been placed on the transfer list and the lads weren’t getting much game time. We haven’t renewed Sean Ward’s contract and allowed him to move on.”

• Portadown have handed one-year contracts to Greg Hall and Callum McVeigh.

The Ports have also signed former Everton and Newry City midfielder Barney McKeown on a two-year deal.

Belfast Telegraph