It’s not every day you get an opportunity for a sit-down conversation with an icon of local football. A welcoming presence at Seaview and a warm handshake from Crusader’s boss Stephen Baxter settles the nerves. It isn’t long before the conversation begins to flow and the first topic for discussion is the influx of new players at the club.
Twenty-five year old forward Paul McElroy was signed by Baxter just days before our interview. Following the departures of Rory Patterson and Ronan Hale Baxter made clear his desire to replenish his front line. The boss was encouraged to sign the forward by his qualities in both central and wide positions and his ability to play as a lone front-man. Baxter is obviously keen to see a strike partnership between McElroy and another new signing Jamie McGonigle. Crues fans can look forward to a dynamic and versatile front line. As Baxter discusses, the Seaview faithful will have a pacey and strong forward in McGonigle, as well as the tricky David Cushley and ‘unique… fabulous’ club stalwart Jordan Owens. Opposition defences will be lining up with some trepidation before a game with Crusaders.
Baxter has also made reinforcements at the back of his Crusaders side. Marque signings include Dungannon pair Chris Hegarty and Jarlath O’Rourke. Hegarty is player with significant pedigree after spells at Rangers, Linfield and as Dungannon captain. His strong playing style, for Baxter, is reminiscent of captain Colin Coates. O’Rourke meanwhile has already begun to show his qualities at Crusaders. Tremendous displays against Wolves endeared him to the Crusaders fans and he has carried this into his league from. Baxter regards him as a player with great talent, particularly in his passing and technical skills.
Importantly for Baxter and Crusaders these four signings have added a crucial infusion of youth to the squad. The quartet have an average age of just 24 underlining Crusaders’ long-term outlook. This is a long-term and evolving project for Baxter but it is one he is ready to match, particularly with a view to developing a completely full-time squad in the coming years.
Naturally our conversation drifts back to the two-legged European tie with the Premier League’s Wolves. How did the manager prepare his side for two monumental performances against a side who had taken points from countless top teams in England? Baxter set about instilling confidence throughout his side as soon as the draw was made. “It was very clearly not a tourist trip. We (Baxter and his coaches) made it clear to the players that on the night the game would be 11 vs 11. They would be playing people of a similar height, similar age, people who eat the same food and breathe the same air – just normal people.”
Crusaders’ opening form this season is a far-cry to last. Four wins and a draw from their opening five games puts them top of the table. Much media attention was directed toward Baxter’s decision to implement a 3-man defence at home to Larne this month, while this weekend’s fixture saw the technical David Cushley lead the line in the absence of an injured Jordan Owens against Dungannon. Crusaders are now a fluid and unpredictable team.
It hasn’t been entirely plane sailing for Baxter as manager this season. With change comes disappointment for those players left out. This dilemma is not easy for any manager. “It’s the worst part of the job, I absolutely hate to leave a player out.” This is clearly an issue Baxter wrestles with. “It keeps me awake some nights… especially if you think you’re dropping your best performer over the last two weeks.” The manager doesn’t dismiss these concerns lightly but he does feel able to rely upon the close network between his players and staff to communicate the reasoning behind his decisions.
After an impressive opening month of the season, I ask Baxter what he expects in the coming month. His answer? Twelve points. The manager is keenly aware of the challenge of this month’s fixtures. In particular the Crues face two standout games away from home to Coleraine and Glentoran. Baxter is a manager content with the robust side he has created at Seaview and expects his starting XI, whoever is in it, to secure the results he regards as necessary to deliver another Gibson Cup to Seaview.
“We’ve been there and done it. It’s a long campaign but we don’t get too stressed and just take it as it comes.”
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