Stephen Baxter believes Crusaders will finish season well

Crusaders Paul Leeman  in action with Ballymena's David Cushley
Crusaders Paul Leeman in action with Ballymena's David Cushley

Stephen Baxter believes his Crusaders’ players battle for Irish Cup semi-final places will have the knock-on effect of boosting his side’s challenge for a third place finish in the Danske Bank Premiership.

Eamon McAllister’s second half goal kept the Shore Road men a point behind Portadown and Baxter expects to have reinforcements available in the coming weeks.

“We have six or seven coming back, starting training and getting ready to play again and a lot of them will get a game for the reserves on Wednesday night which is great.

“Hopefully we will get a lot of them back in time for the semi-final which becomes the priority of the season and see if we can’t finish third in the league and into another Irish Cup final.

“The injured players need to get fit and ready to play and the players holding the shirts need to play as strongly as possibly can to keep their place.

“That’s the way it needs to be, the competition needs to be fierce and we need to see form. The players have been exemplary all year and they have fought in every competition and every single game we’ve played this year.

“I have been ultra, ultra-pleased with them. We’ve fallen at a couple of hurdles by the narrowest of margins and I said at the start of the season there wasn’t a lot separating all of the teams.

“Most teams are capable of picking up a result here and there - it’s about which teams can cope over the long haul and we’re trying to keep ourselves in the right position.”

McAllister’s close-range finish ended a run of spluttering league form at Seaview, with Baxter admitting: “We’ve had one or two too many draws so the win was welcome.

“We’re just trying to put as many points on the board as we can - I don’t really look too much at the stats, I’m only interested in what’s in front of us and getting our injured players fit again.

“I felt it was going to be one goal was going to separate the teams.

“They missed a big chance early in the second half and then we started to get a bit of joy and the ball into the right areas. We got a goal and I felt we were able to see the game out,” added Baxter.

Ballymena boss Glenn Ferguson felt his side deserved something out of the game but the end result is that the Sky Blues will conclude their season in the bottom six for the sixth successive year.

“I was more disappointed after the Glentoran game because I honestly believe it was gone then.

“It was a question of trying to keep things alive mathematically but in reality it was out of our hands. We have to keep our performance levels high and our momentum going ahead of the Irish Cup semi-final. I’m pleased with the performance compared with last week - we got a level we should be used to.”