LEAGUE CUP FINAL: Stephen Baxter banking on cutting edge off Crusaders’ rich history

Stephen Baxter is aiming to secure a second League Cup prize as Crusaders manager. Pic by Pacemaker.
Stephen Baxter is aiming to secure a second League Cup prize as Crusaders manager. Pic by Pacemaker.

Stephen Baxter will walk out at Windsor Park on Saturday evening celebrating 5,479 days in charge of Crusaders.

Across the 15 years since accepting the Crues challenge, Baxter has added seven senior pieces of silverware into the Seaview trophy cabinet.

A sole League Cup prize sits on the manager’s roll of honour and Baxter is hoping experience of the highs and lows can now help secure a second at the third appearance on that showpiece stage since defeating Coleraine in 2012.

“Whenever you start the build-up to the game, you start realising the size of a big cup final and this is obviously a big cup final,” said Baxter, who last lifted knockout silverware in last season’s Irish Cup final victory over Ballinamallard United. “It’s live on television, a big crowd will be in, a big trophy is on the line and we’re playing big opposition so it starts to build.

“Your mental preparation is always on league games beforehand but then it’s full focus on the final.

“There will be excitement but there’s a lot of work around the game, which dampens down the nerves.

“But being in a big cup final is great.

“If you’ve done it a few times you get to know the drill.

“The League Cup was our first major trophy and when you’re trying to do it for the first time there’s something very special around that but experience will definitely help.

“You were expected to win (against Ballinamallard), which was a different type of pressure, and you have to prepare right to make sure it doesn’t fall flat.

“This final takes on a different flavour because Coleraine beat us in the first two games we played this season and we won the third up there and we are two very well-matched teams.”

Baxter highlights the 2012 triumph as a key stepping stone in his squad’s progress towards sustained success.

“That was the year we went on to win the Setanta Cup and we lost in the Irish Cup final, so we played in three finals that year,” said Baxter. “That was the big year in regards to when Crusaders took off a bit.

“My memories of that day (in 2012), we got the goal pretty early and we settled into the game well.

“It was at Ballymena Showgrounds and I remember one bus going one way up the road very happy and the other one going in the opposite direction very sad.

“Cup finals are won and lost, one celebrate and one are unhappy but we were good that day.

“We were confident and it was a big moment for us and we were able to say we were capable of winning at the very highest end of this game right now and we were able to build on that.”

Baxter’s status as an Irish League elder statesman provides the privilege of watching the next generation step into the dug-out and he is full of admiration for his weekend opposite number.

“Oran Kearney was a young manager at Limavady when he retired from playing,” said Baxter. “He rang me very early on for advice about players and he was a lad I immediately warmed to.

“I’ve always had a really good relationship with him and we chat often about different things.

“You’re deadly rivals in big games but we always chat about other things.

“His career has developed really well, he’s an intelligent guy and I always thought he’d blossom well as a manager.

“He knows players, he knows how to deal with people and that’s 90 per cent of what you have to do.”