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Stephen Baxter reveals how Crusaders' trip to Wolves helped to 'kick-start' his mindset after traumatic loss of father George

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Stephen Baxter celebrates Crusaders' back-to-back league titles with dad George in 2016.

Stephen Baxter celebrates Crusaders' back-to-back league titles with dad George in 2016.

Stephen Baxter celebrates Crusaders' back-to-back league titles with dad George in 2016.

Six months of mourning and depression for Stephen Baxter were washed away the moment Crusaders took to the pitch at Molineux to play Wolves at the start of the season.

The Crues boss had suffered the traumatic loss of his father George after a long illness in January of last year and was left in a low and lonely place.

Stephen and his father enjoyed a very close family bond, George was a regular attendee at Seaview and his passing hit the family circle very hard.

Baxter soldiered on in public, beating Glentoran, Linfield, Ballymena United and Coleraine en route to a victorious Irish Cup Final against Ballinamallard United, but today reveals the feeling of emptiness inside as his thoughts turned to his father.

"For six months, I was in a very lonely place mentally and I struggled with the bigger picture", he recalls.

"When you have a relationship, a very special relationship, with your father and you have to watch an illness take someone out and you lose that person, you have to find a new normal.

"I took counsel from some wise people I know, people who have suffered loss, I guess I nearly had a bit of depression for those six months and I don't think I'm completely out of that place.

"It's funny, as a football manager, you have a public persona and a private one and I was like two different people.

"I had to be Stephen Baxter, the manager, the man with all the encouragement, that drives on other people while on the inside I was feeling completely dead.

"That Irish Cup run was very tricky, we had to get through that run to get to the final against Ballinamallard and the victory on the day was great.

"But because of the overwhelming sense of loss I felt about my father, the Irish Cup paled into insignificance by comparison.

"There was joy okay, but there was no sense of overwhelming achievement, because of the loss of my father.

"Dad died in January and, at the end of the football season, I went away on holiday with my family to sit in the sun, read books and relax but it was worse, I had more time to think about things.

"It was only when we went to play Wolves at Molineux in the Europa League last July that I started to feel myself again.

"I got there, looked around the stadium and thought 'wow, this is something else', and it seemed to kick-start me.

"After all the numbness I had felt, I started to feel a little bit clearer around my emotions, I felt more alive than I had been feeling.

"It was like the flick of a switch, I thought 'I'm back!' and it really helped me.

"Six months later on, I was able to look back and in some way feel glad that I experienced what I was going through, which was the loss of someone very special to me, it was comforting.

"You have to go through these experiences in life, so when you are winning trophies or fighting relegation battles you keep your perspective and think about your family and personal life.

"It's a bit like this coronavirus pandemic, some panic and some take it in their stride and, for me, my faith has always been something I have been able to draw upon since I decided to devote my life to God when I was 19."

Baxter also joined the ranks of senior football at the same age, signing for Ards initially before going on to Linfield, Crusaders, Glenavon, Distillery and Bangor.

As Crusaders team-mate Glenn Dunlop said: "Just because you are a Christian, it doesn't make you a coward", and Baxter really found his spiritual home at Seaview, where Roy Walker was assembling a formidable outfit known as 'The God Squad' because of the Christians in the group, including Walker himself.

Those players of faith would pray together before joining the likes of Marty Murray and Kirk Hunter in battle on the pitch as Crusaders won two League titles.

Baxter was no shrinking violet himself as a rangy target man in the 90s but, throughout his career and his life, his faith has been a guiding light and remains relevant to this day.

As society is cowed into isolation by the coronavirus, football is in lockdown until April 29 at the earliest and Baxter told his players to train in isolation ahead of a potential restart.

In these times of hardship, the man from north Down insists there is no better time to turn to God for succour.

"It's an interesting question; when the world is faced with a global crisis, where is God in all of it?" he said.

"The world has faced famines, tsunamis, all sorts of disasters and you ask yourself how you cope with it.

"That's when you very much have to draw upon your faith and I have been able to find a mechanism to help, even when me, my wife, my daughter and grandson are in isolation at the minute.

"I try to keep some sort of rhythm in my day and I start off with early devotion, then do a lot of reading and watching modern worship on YouTube, I think of people who have needed prayers in recent times and I pray for them.

"I tend to find it's a nice way to still the mind, it helps to pay attention to what is going on around you and who needs a bit of support.

"This is a disease that will take very many lives, there is no vaccine yet, the death toll keeps rising and it really brings into focus the elderly and the vulnerable in our society.

"It gives us time to think about why we are here and how we can help our fellow man in times of strife, and it brings me back to creation - you are born for a time, you live for a time then you're gone.

"I have tried to use my time wisely, not to panic, be well informed and watch out for others, and the faith element is so important."

Belfast Telegraph