FOOTBALL COLUMN: Liam Beckett talks...

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter
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It still never ceases to amaze me that whenever a team is playing poorly and getting bad results it’s always the manager’s fault.

But whenever a team is playing well and getting good results it’s always the players who get all the plaudits.

Funny old game is football.

When I was working at Saturday’s North Belfast derby between Crusaders and Cliftonville, it suddenly struck me just how vital a good manager is to every football club that possesses even a crumb of desire to go on and win a league championship.

And for me Crusaders have by far the most outstanding manager in Irish League football.

Given the fact that Stephen Baxter had to start from scratch, and I mean scratch, merely bolsters my argument that quite simply the man is in a class of his own.

Don’t forget that when he took on the Crusaders job at the very outset, he inherited a team that were destined for relegation, plus he had taken over the managerial reins at a club who were in deep financial trouble. The future was bleak, to say the least.

But the ‘big lad’ remained loyal to the task, he had a goal, he had a vision, he could see the big picture years down the line.

Many others would have ran a mile, but Baxter saw a challenge, relished it, and remained loyal to the cause.

What a really poor hand he got dealt at the start, a poor team with far too many average players, and a club with less than no money. In all honesty he should be given the freedom of the borough for what he’s achieved.

What Stephen Baxter has done over the last decade for Crusaders is nothing short of phenomenal.

Now 10 years on the club is an outstanding example to all others just how to do things right, the big lad has delivered all of the major trophies in local football on the field of play, whilst off the pitch the club are now on a very sound financial footing.

But despite all those tough times of adversity, Crusaders Football Club never ever lost that genuine pleasant, warm welcome they roll out to everyone that ever walks through the front door at Seaview.

It’s a family club for the people, and always has been.

Now, together with an extremely hard working bunch of people at committee level, Baxter and Co have built that vital ingredient that all successful football clubs have, and it’s the only one that money can’t buy, its called ‘togetherness’.

After Saturday’s narrow 1-0 victory over one of their nearest challengers and fierce rivals Cliftonville, I can honestly say that bar a total collapse of mammoth proportions the biggest prize in local football is once again on its way back to Seaview for the second year in succession, now that’s what I call progress.

Yes, I know only too well that the ‘fat lady’ hasn’t started singing yet, but believe me I can hear her clearing her throat (and I’m in Ballymoney).

But of all the other teams the Danske Bank Premiership, how has the season been for you?

Here’s my take on the other 11 clubs, and in current league table order...

(David Healy, Linfield): Literally only in the manager’s door at the biggest club in the country, David undoubtedly took a massive gamble by accepting the job at a club where success isn’t only expected, it’s demanded.

Already an absolute legend in this country in playing terms he knew he ran the risk of going from ‘hero to zero’ practically overnight with his brave decision to manage Linfield.

I like David, and despite a shaky start I now honestly feel he will bring the good times back to Windsor Park, but he will need time to instigate the changes he knows is necessary in order to achieve greatness.

(Gerard Lyttle, Cliftonville): Again, literally only in the door at Cliftonville, taking over from who for me was the greatest ever manager in the club’s history, Tommy Breslin.

With the League Cup already in the Solitude trophy cabinet means Lyttle has hit the ground running and it’s already clear to me he has the ability to go on and even surpass Tommy’s incredible record.

(Gary Hamilton, Glenavon): Yet again this season Hamilton has the Lurgan Blues right up there at the proper end of the league table and also has built a team more than capable of winning the Irish Cup.

Hamilton is for me the only other manager who will genuinely run Stephen Baxter close for Manager of the Year.

(Oran Kearney, Coleraine): Finally has got his team into the top six and well on course for a possible European slot, again for me that represents progress.

Could do with a longer run in the major cups but definitely on the right road.

(Alan Kernaghan , Glentoran): Again, I feel Glentoran have made a good choice with Alan as manager and again he is literally just through the door a few months ago.

It’s unquestionably a massive job to restore the Glens back to where they once were, however Alan is capable of doing just that, but he needs time and lots of it, possibly even as much as 10 years – just ask Stephen Baxter.

(Ronnie McFall, Portadown): A terrible season so far by his standards for one of the most likeable and successful managers in local football.

Again, I harp back to my original sentence in today’s column: ‘It’s the manager who always cops the flak for poor performances’.

But in this instance I feel it’s some of the players who should feel ashamed of themselves, at times I’ve seen more fight in a Christmas eve turkey.

(Glenn Ferguson, Ballymena United): Just like Ronnie, ‘Spike’ is a highly respected figure in local football, his playing career was an extremely distinguished one.

But despite a good record in some cup competitions he will know only too well that eighth position in a league of 12 teams is not acceptable at a club of Ballymena’s potential. Major surgery required if progress is to be made.

(Rodney McAree, Dungannon Swifts ): Like a few others this season Rodney has just been installed as the Swifts manager, taking over from Darren Murphy.

Rodney just lives, eats and sleeps Dungannon Swifts Football Club and if anybody can keep them in the big League then look no further than McAree, a good choice by the Swifts.

(Whitey Anderson, Ballinamallard United ): If ever you are asked to draw up a list of the most decent and likeable people in local football then it’s an absolute guarantee Whitey will be up near the very top.

This man just loves the sport and in particular his beloved Ballinamallard United. But inconsistency has plagued his team all season and Whitey now faces one of his biggest battles ever to keep the Mallards in the big league.

(Barry Gray, Warrenpoint Town): Has unquestionably turned what looked like a hopeless cause into now one of realistic survival chances in the Premiership.

Unknown to many, Barry does much more behind the scenes at the club than just manage the first team, and is very often indeed one of our unsung heroes in the sport.

He may well yet just pull off one of the greatest ever escapes seen in local football, could Barry be the new Steve McQueen of Warrenpoint Town?

(Gary Haveron, Carrick Rangers ): Just new to this level of management this season and after a promising start it’s all come a bit unstuck for the likeable rookie.

A shocking playing surface of a pitch has merely added to the manager’s woes with so many postponements upsetting any chance of normality and continuity. Now forced to play home games at another venue won’t help either. Really needs to start picking up points again, and soon, if they are to be part of the big time next season again.