Linfield axing was making of Crusaders' chief Stephen Baxter
IT was perhaps naïve to think a Cliftonville side that has been blowing hot and cold in recent months could do anything to stop Crusaders’ inexorable push towards retaining the Danske Bank Premiership title at Solitude on Tuesday night.
Some Reds fans were justifiably dismayed with their team’s performance, particularly when north Belfast pride was at stake.
From the home side’s perspective, the one shaft of light was second half substitute George McMullan’s performance.
The Cliftonville veteran managed to wrest a bit of control away from the champions-elect with some daring tackles and much-needed composure in possession.
It’s crazy to think the 34-year-old McMullan is considering retirement at the end of this campaign when he still has the ability to control games and inspire those around him.
However, the truth of the matter is that Crusaders never contemplated losing at Solitude.
They were a yard quicker to loose balls, hungrier and a more together group than their hosts.
They could easily have racked up five goals in a desperately one-sided first half.
They looked every bit league champions before it was mathematically confirmed at the final whistle.
It’s impossible to overplay Stephen Baxter’s role in the Shore Road club scaling the same mountain in successive seasons.
It doesn’t seem that long ago the former striker was trying to pick up the pieces as the Seaview club fell into intermediate football in 2005.
Eleven years on, he’s still at the helm and has evolved into the best manager in Irish League football.
Ask any of his players and they’ll wax lyrical about his man-management skills.
And if you’re still not convinced, ask any player who has played for him and left the club and they’ll be equally gushing about Baxter’s human touch.
Twelve months ago I interviewed the Crusaders manager on the eve of their first title success since 1997. After a half an hour in his company you understand why he’s been brilliant at squeezing the best out of his players.
It dates back to his most bitter experience in football when Linfield rejected him.
It all went pear-shaped for the-then 27-year-old Linfield striker when new manager Trevor Anderson arrived at Windsor Park.
“Trevor came in and got rid of me,” Baxter recalled.
“He replaced me with Gary Haylock at the time. Probably wasn’t a bad replacement, to be fair.
“I was 27 when I left. Leaving Linfield was like a death in the family. When you’re shown the door at Linfield, it’s like your world has collapsed. I was in my prime and someone is telling you your time’s up.”
The experience proved instructive in his own journey through management.
“I have to tell you that I have carried that experience into management,” he added. “I will never treat a player – ever – the way I was treated.
“I’d like to think all the players I’ve had over the 10 years here, I’ve treated them well. You have your moments with players.
“That’s part of the job, but when I’ve said to a player: ‘Listen, it’s not going to work here but I’ll do everything I can to get you a club’... It’s not easy all of the time but all the players have appreciated that [approach] and I remain close with many of them.”
Another key tenet of Baxter’s management is his pragmatism. There have been no revolutionary tactical strategies at Seaview during Baxter’s time in charge.
It’s part-time football at the end of the day, which amounts to a couple of hours training in between games, which makes it difficult to adopt different formations other than the familiar 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.
The fact that the ball transfers so quickly in the Irish League makes playing anything other than 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 seem a tad indulgent. Indeed, Eddie Patterson’s Glentoran were the only side that managed to play effectively with three at the back or five in the middle of the field in recent seasons.
Baxter understands the terrain better than most – so why complicate things?
Crusaders still get criticised in parts for playing a direct style. But the more you hear this refrain, the more begrudging and vacuous it sounds.
Cliftonville won back-to-back league titles by playing a fabulous brand of football, largely thanks to the emergence of Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley. But that was the exception.
Players like Boyce and Gormley don’t come around that often. Baxter’s raw material has been the finest granite.
He may have been a striker but he knows a thing or two about defensive organisation and digging foundations.
Crusaders full-backs Billy Joe Burns and Craig McClean are by no means Cafu or Roberto Carlos – but they never seem to make a mistake. They love the sometimes ugly art of defending.
Several opposition managers have bemoaned what Colin Coates gets away with during games.
The Crusaders centre-back undoubtedly plays on the edge but he has been a paragon of consistency for the champions.
Ask any of those opposing managers and they would welcome a player like Coates with open arms. Behind them, Crusaders have the most consistent goalkeeper in the Irish League in Sean O’Neill.
Baxter’s acquisition of Jordan Forsythe was the best bit of transfer business completed in this campaign. The former Bangor midfielder has the ability to take local football by the scruff of the neck next season.
Built like a jockey’s whip, winger Paul Heatley has been the team and the league’s stand-out player for a second consecutive season.
Jordan Owens has evolved into one of the most intelligent strikers in the game and is a classic example of a player who knows his limitations and continues to flourish as a result.
Overall, the biggest compliment you could pay the newly-crowned Irish League champions is that every other team dreads playing them.
And Stephen Baxter deserves immense credit for the club’s rise from the ashes.
Perhaps midfielder Declan Caddell summed up Baxter best when he said in an Irish News interview: “I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. He gets me to do what I’m good at and not do what I’m not good at. He gets the best out of me.”