Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter admits he already has one eye on next season’s title defence – but for now it is party time at Seaview.
The Crues are celebrating a first league championship in 18 years, and on Saturday Baxter and his players will finally get their hands on the Holy Grail of local football – the Gibson Cup.
It is rich reward for a stellar season of mesmerising football from the Crues, one that has earned Saturday’s title coronation at Seaview.
A carnival atmosphere is expected on the Shore Road.
First, there will be the side issue of a dead rubber fixture against Glenavon to fulfil.
But after that Baxter will realise a dream that has been 10 years in the making – ever since he took over the managerial reins in February 2005.
“It will be a bigger challenge next season. We have just won the title, but you are already switched on to next season and building towards something else,” he said.
“You achieve one thing, and then you switch your focus to something else.
“But that is for another day. We are preparing for a massive party at Seaview on Saturday. After 18 years without the title, the party will be monumental.
“The celebrations have already started, but to see the Gibson Cup on Saturday, and to parade that trophy and get pictures taken with it, means an awful lot to people.
“We have been the outstanding team this season and we deserve this. We have scored the most goals, and conceded the least.
“We deserve to be crowned champions, and we intend enjoying it.”
North Belfast has dominated the Irish League landscape over the past three seasons.
Cliftonville claimed back-to-back titles in 2013 and ‘14 respectively, with Crusaders wrestling the Gibson Cup off their derby rivals this term.
Linfield – under new manager Warren Feeney – will finish as runners-up this year, and Baxter expects the Blues - and other rivals - to throw down the gauntlet next season.
“Linfield haven’t won the title for three years, and all talk will turn to ‘why?’,” Baxter added.
“You know they will come back bigger and stronger. They will return as the dominant force at some stage.
“We are all working extra hard to stay up there, and Cliftonville and ourselves have crept above them.
“But the likes of Linfield and Glentoran will want more. They will all progress and develop their teams, and they will improve.
“But that’s what you need. Strong teams which will help bring the fans out.
“This is our wee turn at the Gibson Cup. We have won it five times now, the last one coming 18 years ago.
“When the club won it when I was a player, there had been 19 years of a gap to the side that won it before. Now there has been an 18-year gap to this triumph.
“If we have to wait another 18 years I will be 70.
“We are enjoying our time and it is awesome to be involved with Crusaders at this time.”
Baxter – who signed a new three-year deal with the Crues on Thursday night – believes Irish League football is on an upward curve, and hopes Crusaders’ title triumph can generate more interest among the casual supporter.
“We have a fantastic product in this country, and people need to realise that,” he said.
“We have six teams challenging for the title, two below that who are not far away, and four below that who can beat anyone on their day.
“The goals, excitement, is fantastic. I would like to see more fans out there.
“We have great rivalry between fans and banter flies around, but it is great.
“The amount of people who have been sending their congratulations has been phenomenal. It fills me with pride.
“We are rivals, but when the dust settles we all shake hands and say ‘well done’. That is what it is all about.
“Linfield fans, Glentoran fans, Cliftonville fans – everyone has been amazing and I can’t thank them enough.”
Glenavon are the visitors to Seaview tomorrow, where legendary defender William ‘Winkie’ Murphy will hang up his boots after 25 stellar years.
“William Murphy is a stalwart of our game,” Baxter added.
“I remember him starting off, and what a player he has been. A phenomenal servant to the local game.”