Irish League: Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter excited by crunch tests in Danske Bank Premiership

Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter

The Danske Bank Premiership season may still be in its infancy, but Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter can appreciate the significance of the next week for his champions.

The Crues are preparing for a massive north Belfast derby against Cliftonville at Solitude on Saturday.

Seven days later they will clash with current league leaders and chief title rivals Linfield.

Baxter is relishing the significant double-header, but insists he is under no illusions as Crusaders look to bolster their title defence.

“It is still early days as far as the title race is concerned, but there is no getting away from how big the next two fixtures are,” he said.

“If we win the next two games we are right up there in the table – if we lose them then we are playing catch-up.

“That’s the nature of the league. But it is the same for everyone else.”

Baxter’s primary focus is tomorrow’s trip to Solitude.

Cliftonville claimed back-to-back titles before Crusaders wrestled the Gibson Cup away from their derby rivals last season.

The north Belfast clubs have dominated the Irish League landscape over recent years, a trend Baxter hopes continues this term and beyond.

“Cliftonville and Crusaders have dominated for probably the last five years, what with league titles and the other cup competitions,” the Crues chief said.

“We won the title last season, and we have been in finals of cups. Cliftonville won successive titles and countless other silverware.

“So north Belfast has been riding high, and we want that to continue under the colours of Crusaders.

“Cliftonville have done tremendously well this season, and we have picked up in the last three games. So that is pleasing.

“We are looking forward to Saturday’s derby, it is a good game.

“The players won’t need any added motivation going into a game like this.

“It will be another super occasion with a good crowd and big atmosphere – let’s get it on.”

Baxter will look for an improved display from Tuesday’s League Cup win over Knockbreda.

The Crues laboured to a 3-1 victory over Championship opposition, having to rely on a classy double from Gavin Whyte and a third goal from Matthew Snoddy.

“You probably had to be in the dressing room to hear what I had to say after Tuesday’s game – it wouldn’t be fair for me to divulge what was said,” Baxter smiles.

“We got the quality from Gavin (Whyte), and we haven’t had that for a week or two. All of a sudden he showed us what he is about – so that was a big plus for us.

“We saw Gavin’s quality, and when you get that he is a joy to watch. We are pleased with how he shaped up.

“Matthew (Snoddy) did particularly well, and the rest we probably shouldn’t talk about.”

Meanwhile, Michael Carvill could be sidelined for three weeks after picking up an ankle injury on Tuesday night.

Josh Robinson was also forced off with a hamstring strain and is rated doubtful for Saturday’s derby.