IRISH LEAGUE: Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter up for title battle

Crusaders Jordan Forsythe celebrates after he fires the Crues into a 1-0 lead
Crusaders Jordan Forsythe celebrates after he fires the Crues into a 1-0 lead

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter reckons it's now a two-way battle for the Danske Premiership title.

The Crues demonstrated they have no intentions of relinquishing their grip on the Gibson Cup with a thumping win over lowly Carrick Rangers at the Loughshore Hotel Arena.

It keeps them five points clear of fast-chasing Linfield, but crucially Baxter’s team return to the same venue tomorrow night which gives them the chance of increasing their advantage.

Jordan Forsythe shot the Crues ahead with one the fastest goal of the campaign, but it was little Paul Heatley, who was the tormentor in chief. He bagged a glorious double to take his tally for the season to 19!

Carrick contributed to their own downfall as goalkeeper James Taylor was dismissed after only 34 minutes after barging into Dairmuid O’Carroll. Midfielder Brian McCaul took over between the posts and his first job was to beat away a Billy Joe Burn spot kick.

Big Jordan Owens put the icing on the cake for the Crues by blasting home the fourth, but even he looked on in embarrassment when referee Mervyn Smyth pointed to the centre circle after the ball crashed against the underside of the crossbar.

“Given the amount of games that are left, you would probably think it (the title race) now might be a two horse race,” said Baxter. “You have to remember that all these teams are scrapping for their lives. Every game you play now has something about, whether it be the top or the bottom of the table.

“There are still plenty of points to play for. Glenavon are on a really good run . . . they are now up there challenging. Perhaps, the points’ gap would suggest it would be difficult for them to mount a late charge in terms of the title.

“We are simply counting off the games and trying to win the fixtures in front of us and putting points on the board."

Baxter stressed his boys turned in a ‘professional job’ at Carrick, adding: “It was a good solid performance. We were exceptional over the first 20 minutes.

“We then tried to keep hold of the ball, but unfortunately the state of the pitch didn’t allow that to happen . . . it bobbled and bounced all over the place. That style of play didn’t work particularly well in the second half. It’s all about game management. It’s all about looking after players."

With the Crues primed for a return trip, Rangers boss Gary Haveron blew a sight of despair, stating: “I’ll be glad to see the back of the Crues.

“I’ve said right from the beginning that our season will not hinge on what we do against Crusaders, Linfield or Cliftonville. The reality is, they are out of our reach.

“They have boys sitting on the subs’ bench . . . they are like for like in terms of the players they replace. We just don’t have that same luxury.”