Stephen Baxter ready for title battle as Crusaders close gap at the top

Paul Heatley tries to get away from Niall Quinn
Paul Heatley tries to get away from Niall Quinn

Stephen Baxter insists Crusaders cannot afford to drop their guard as they continue their title crusade this season.

The Crues closed to within a point of Linfield at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table with Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the Blues.

A bumper crowd descended on Seaview to witness the crunch New Year fixture, and they were treated to a thrilling and frenetic showdown on the Shore Road.

The Blues went into the clash boasting a healthy four-point lead at the summit, but goals from Jordan Owens and Paul Heatley earned Crusaders their win – and blow the title race wide open.

“It is a very big win for us, when you look at the table,” Baxter said.

“We could have been seven points behind, but we are now only one.

“I thought it was an immense performance from my players today.”

He added: “Linfield hadn’t lost in the league since we beat them back in October. They were on a big charge.

“Coming off the Cliftonville win on Boxing Day, I believed that we had some momentum and we carried it on today.

“But it is still early days in this league race. We still have a lot of games to play so we can’t get carried away with ourselves.

“Anyone who drops off the pace by nine points, still has a chance of getting right back in the mix.”

Owens finished off from close range in the ninth minute to gift Crusaders the lead.

Heatley doubled the advantage 47 seconds after the half-time break, but Andy Waterworth’s reply for Linfield in the 59th minute ensured a tense, grandstand finish.

The Crues held on for the win, and will hope to bolster their title prospects with victory against Ballinamallard United on Saturday.

“There is a different pressure playing Ballinamallard, as to playing Linfield,” Baxter added.

“There is a different atmosphere, which can play a big part. You have to overcome that at all times.

“We have beaten Cliftonville and Linfield, and they are two massive games. You just get on with them. Ballinamallard will be different proposition.

“That’s when you hope your key players will make sure we stay on our toes. You guard against complacency setting in and levels dropping – it does happen.

“We have dropped points at Ballinamallard and Institute, places you need to win at to win titles.

“So we can’t drop our guard for one second, and we will continue to push the boys hard and give of their best.

“They have done that, and they have to do it again on Saturday.”

Linfield boss Warren Feeney refused to downbeat after watching his side lose in the league for the first time since October 25 – also against Crusaders.

“I am disappointed with the goals we conceded,” he said.

“But I can’t be hard on the players. People will have seen the fight in my players today – we could have got something out of the game.

“And we are still in a fantastic position. We are one point clear at the top, and we have another game on Saturday to try and bounce back.”

Meanwhile, Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O’Neill has signed a new long-term contract with the Seaview club.

O’Neill – who was on the radar of a number of Premiership clubs – has agreed a three-year deal.

“That is another block in place, and we are very happy,” Crusaders boss Baxter said.