If league form is considered the true measure of a team’s quality, it is a mark of the high standards set by Crusaders that Stephen Baxter’s squads stand alone in terms of points accumulated across the past five seasons.
Danske Bank Premiership crowns won within that timeframe went, of course, to Linfield and Cliftonville either side of the Crues’ back-to-back domestic dominance over 2015 and 2016.
A Baxter team on the pitch serves as the ultimate representation of the drive and desire so central to the Crusaders pursuit of perfection. A late collapse may have cost the Crues the coveted title treble last season but Baxter maintains motivation continues to come from within rather than revenge for any short-term setback.
“It is never about what happened last season or in the past,” said Baxter. “We always look to our own levels and performances and approach games in the hope we are capable of achieving what we want.
“It comes to down to our own internal goals and that is when you need the right mental strength as well as players with quality.
“You can never take anything for granted, irrespective of past results or achievements.
“We work very hard on the mental aspect of it all towards striving for the confidence you need to maintain consistency.
“You always start with the mindset of looking to win every single game.”
Baxter’s summer recruitment work has centred on specific targets as solutions to specific problems, essentially signings designed towards evolution rather than revolution.
The arrivals of signings with the experience levels enjoyed by Brian Jensen, Mark McChrystal and Sean Ward point to internal analysis of depleted defensive resources exposed last season by the loss on a long-term basis of centre-back Colin Coates and the current continued absence of goalkeeper Sean O’Neill following surgery.
“You want to freshen up the group but it comes down to fine margins and chasing very specific players,” said Baxter. “Not everybody can improve on what we have and it is like searching for that exact diamond.
“I am happy with the business done towards reaching our targets on a short-term, medium-term and long-term basis.
“It is about thinking over a season-wide competition and what we need for that challenge.”
Crusaders’ domestic consistency has cultivated continental experience as a result of European qualification on a regular basis. Baxter’s belief is that those summer gains can help maintain a pursuit of league and cup prizes from August to May.
“Our pre-season overall has been really positive,” said Baxter. “I am very pleased with the effort and focus from everyone.
“In the course of the normal season you have the guys in a few nights a week for training then on matchdays, so it is a short-term period together and very much about hard work.
“Having the group away together for around a week in Europe is a brilliant opportunity as you can spend time together rather than rushing around.
“It is great for signings to integrate and, from a coaching viewpoint, we always try to use it to put in place ideas for the season to come. We make sure we gather the collective together and utilise Europe in a structured way.
“Our approach is about working hard and hoping it allows you to achieve together.”