IRISH LEAGUE: Crusaders keep the faith after Cliftonville fightback

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter in celebration on Saturday. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter in celebration on Saturday. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

Stephen Baxter says he always had faith that Crusaders’ ‘one game at a time’ approach would get their title ambitions back on track.

Successive defeats to Coleraine and Linfield had seen the Crues’ seemingly unassailable lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership decimated to just a single point – an advantage they maintained courtesy of Saturday’s battling victory over Cliftonville at Solitude.

Critical of his players in the aftermath of last week’s loss to the Blues, Baxter was fulsome in his praise for how they responded on derby day.

“We have very strong characters in the squad and it’s clear how much this win meant to them because it was a big, big result,” he said.

“When you’re struggling to make yourself heard over the top of them in the changing room after the game, it’s a sign of how happy and confident they are but I never doubted them at all because they’ve been excellent for me for many years now.

“It doesn’t matter how many points you’re clear or how many matches there are left to go, you just play the game in front of you, get what you can from it and move on to the next one. That’s the attitude we’ve always had.

“This is a 38 game season and I’ve always known that. Our target is to still be top after the 38 games and we’re on course to achieve that, but we still have some tough games to come. We’ll play them one at a time and do everything we can to keep ourselves in front.”

They did exactly that at the weekend with an incredible 10th win in 11 north Belfast derby outings, thanks in no small part to a quickfire brace of Jordan Owens headers.

Michael Carvill had opened the scoring with a scrambled effort midway through the first-half but Cliftonville turned the tie around with Levi Ives strikes either side of the interval – the first a pinpoint drive into the bottom corner and the second a rocket volley which pinged off Billy Joe Burns en route to the back of the net.

Owens, however, would have the day’s final say when he converted a Paul Heatley cross before getting on the end of Burns’ delivery to restore Crusaders’ lead.

The champions return to action with tomorrow night’s Seaview showdown against Coleraine – a fixture for which Baxter has backed his players to prepare properly.

“Tuesday’s another very tough match and I’ve spoken to them (his squad) about watching what they do over this Easter weekend,” he added. “No bars, no nightclubs, nothing – no doing the dishes even. They need to relax, rest and make sure they’re ready to go again.”

Assistant boss Mal Donaghy felt Cliftonville’s patched-up side merited at least a draw for their efforts.

“We’re pleased with the performance but disappointed with the result,We’ve been punished for not dealing with crosses into our box – not cutting them out and then not winning the ball.”