IRISH LEAGUE: Crusaders boss Baxter wary of Linfield threat

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter. Pic by Pacemaker.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter. Pic by Pacemaker.

Stephen Baxter’s Irish League career as a player and manager has provided the current Crusaders boss with ample evidence of the cost that comes with writing off Linfield.

The former forward found the net over 100 times in Linfield blue on the way to a medal haul that included double title triumphs.

Linfield boss David Healy. Pic by INPHO.

Linfield boss David Healy. Pic by INPHO.

Baxter’s managerial success in guiding Crusaders to Gibson Cup glory on two occasions both arrived with Linfield next in line across the final Irish League standings.

Last season’s Dankse Bank Premiership race for top spot presented the most recent example of the Windsor Park club’s longevity as Linfield produced a thrilling charge to the coveted league prize across the second half of the season, as a result, edging out Baxter and his boys to kill off hopes of Crusaders securing a championship hat-trick.

The Crues have enjoyed the upper hand over old rivals Linfield in this current campaign but visit Windsor Park this weekend with Baxter aware of the risks connected to under-estimating David Healy’s men.

Linfield recently dropped points on home soil to newly-promoted Warrenpoint Town and will tackle the Crues still reeling from the Boxing Day blow of defeat to Glentoran off an injury-time own goal.

“I’ve heard people writing off Linfield but that is nonsense,” said Baxter, who is aiming to extend a 16-game unbeaten run across all competitions. With two games in hand over leaders Coleraine they could effectively cut the gap to nine points.

“In this league everything can swing off a few results and every game can hang in the balance.

“We only have to think back to last season for evidence of what can happen and what Linfield are capable of producing.”

Baxter kicked off the season adamant that the pain of missing out on the title to Linfield did not play any extra part in Crusaders’ motivation.

Now, with Linfield yet to recapture the consistency and confidence of last season, Baxter maintains outside affairs hold no interest for the Seaview club.

“It is not about revenge or another team’s form, we simply do not think about clubs beyond Crusaders,” said the long-serving Crues boss.

“At the level we all operate, so many factors come into play in any one game so it can come down to fitness, form, tactics or those small margins that make a difference in someone getting it right on any given matchday.

“We only consider each fixture as another game of football but will accept the squad is currently on a good run of form and we go into games with confidence.

“It is about staying in the hunt around this time of the season but everyone remains relaxed.

“We know we have done nothing at this stage but want to call on our squad depth to ensure fatigue does not have too great an impact during this demanding festive run of fixtures.”

Linfield boss Healy will be hoping the high-profile clash with Crusaders can provide a spark to ignite his squad’s upturn in form.

“I understand the frustrations of the fans but we certainly do not pick a team or make changes to go out and not win a game, it’s always in a positive manner the way we try to do it,” said Healy on the club’s official website.

“There are a lot of games left but where we are at the minute we are going to need a huge reaction and probably some of the other clubs to drop quite a few points.

“We will reassess and see how we can make it better.

“We have a game on Saturday with Crusaders coming to Windsor Park and there’s no hiding place for anyone.

“The demands of this club ensure we need to make sure we turn up on Saturday with the foot on the gas full throttle.

“You are always working and preparing for the games coming up and it is tough going as I hate losing, especially against our fiercest rivals.”