After being awarded an BEM in the New Year honours list, Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter had an equally huge grin on his face following his team’s hard-fought win over Glentoran at the Oval on Saturday.
The reigning Danske Bank Premiership title holders looked as though they were about to lose further ground on the top two – Ballymena United and Linfield – after failing to break down the hapless East Belfast side, still smarting by the Big Two Boxing Day drubbing by Linfield.
With the game deep into the four minutes of added time, substitute Jordan Owens attempted to meet a hopeful punt forward by Jordan Forsythe but was bundled over by Glens defender Ross Redman. Referee Tim Marshall had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. David Cushley confidently stepped up to send Elliott Morris the wrong way.
Things got even worse for Glentoran as defender Marcus Kane received his marching orders after lunging into a tackle on defender Sean Ward.
It may have been an arduous 90 minutes for the fans of both clubs, but at least the Crues supporters filed out of the ground with a smile as big as their manager’s.
The Crues were coming off the back of a 5-1 defeat of North Belfast rivals Cliftonville – a victory achieved with a swagger and a touch of class. Baxter admitted his boys had were forced to grind out the points across town.
“We had a big result on Boxing Day when we totally dominated the game,” he said. “That was a free-flowing, entertaining and easy on the eye – this was cagey, tight and quite ugly.
“I have to admit, it certainly wasn’t one for the football purist.”
Baxter, however, insisted it was a matter of remaining patient and maintaining the belief they could win it.
“Glentoran obviously looked at our (Boxing Day) game and didn’t want a repeat which meant they sat in very deep,” he added. “There was very little going on from both teams, the way the game was set up.
“The bobbly, uneven pitch certainly lend itself to conducive free-flowing football. The ball was in the air a lot – the game was a bit stale.
“With Glentoran coming off a poor result (at Linfield), they probably would have settled for a scoreless draw.
“But I think we turned the screw over the last 15 minutes . . . we had them hemmed inside their box.
“Goals come from pressure and we applied the pressure. Once we brought on Jordan, we put them under pressure and that’s when the mistake came from to win it.”
On his British Empire Medal, Baxter added: “It’s quite surreal. The news came to me a few weeks ago and it was released official on Friday.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. I’ve come through playing and managing the game I love, it’s just been amazing for me.
“We’ve all been on an incredible journey at Crusaders over the last number of years. So, to get an honour like this is special for me personally and it’s lovely for my family. I’m very pleased – it’s very humbling.”
Glentoran boss Ronnie McFall believes the two late decisions cost his team at least a point.
The East Belfast side have now gone 11 games without a win, which has resulted in them plummeting to eight in the Danske Bank Premiership table – just five points from the relegation slots.
“It wasn’t a penalty for me,” said McFall. “Both players were at it . . . it was six of one, half a dozen of the other. It was a soft decision.
“I don’t think Kane should have been dismissed either. He went in to clear the ball. It was the reaction of the Crusaders players that influenced both decisions. I was happy with the response of the team after the Boxing Day defeat. They showed a lot of hunger and desire.”