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Belfast Live
Gareth Fullerton

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter has "no issues" over new Premiership challenge

Stephen Baxter insists he welcomes the challenge of taking on the Irish League's big spenders after suffering a humbling defeat at Inver Park.

Baxter's Crusaders became the latest victims to high-flying Larne who raced into a 4-0 lead before easing to a 4-1 victory on Friday night.

The result moved Larne to the top of the Irish Premiership, with main rivals Glentoran not playing until Saturday afternoon.

Read more: Ballyclare forward Roohi named Championship Player of the Month

Larne and Glentoran have enjoyed significant investment in the past five years, with funding both on and off the pitch transforming both clubs into strong Gibson Cup contenders this season.

Baxter guided Crusaders from the old First Division to become Premiership champions on no less than three occasions in the past decade, their last title success coming back in 2018.

But he accepts the Irish League landscape is significantly different now, with Crusaders - and even Linfield - playing catch-up to both Larne and Glentoran.

"The investment in football in Northern Ireland is fabulous. And long may it continue," Baxter said after Friday night's defeat at Inver..

"The clubs who have this investment are using it wisely and investing in the right areas of their clubs which is the right thing to do.

"You only have to look around you here tonight. I came here as a player when it was a big hill full of muck and there were no facilities.

"And now we see a fabulous set-up with a full-time team who are doing exceptionally well. That's par for the course."

Since Crusaders' last title success in 2018, only Linfield have got their hands on the Gibson Cup with four successive championship wins.

David Healy's side already faces a massive challenge to make it five on the trot, with an out-of-sorts Blues 10 points adrift of Larne heading into Saturday's game against Portadown.

"Linfield, Cliftonville and Crusaders enjoyed huge success in the last 10 years and we set the bar around all of that. And teams were chasing us," Baxter added.

"Now as things evolve with investment and money and all those things, we are now the people chasing. And that's okay. I have issues with that.

"You have to put your best foot forward and work as hard as you can and try and stay with it. We did that for maybe seven, eight or nine years before we got to where we were.

"And then we got a couple of strides forward. Now we need to continue working as hard as we can to stay in the race, if you like. To stay in the top six.

"I have said that from the start of the season, that we want to be in and around the top six and top four, playing our football in there.

"We are under no illusions what is happening around football and how competitive it is. But on our day and when we have all our players match fit, we are a match for anyone."

Reflecting on Friday night's defeat, Baxter said: "First and foremost you have to take your hat off to a well well polished 30-minute spell from Larne who were exceptional in their movement and cut through us like a knife through butter.

"So from our point of view we will take responsibility. I will take responsibility for the defeat. We are missing a number of key players which is difficult, but we don't make excuses about that.

"But we were missing players we would have maybe liked to stop the flow from Larne. I thought Larne worked the ball really well and took their goals really well.

"We weren't quick enough to the first ball, and we were a yard off it as they say in football. And then that happens against a team like Larne, that creates overloads around the pitch.

"And all the best preparation you put in goes out the window when you don't pick up runners."


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