Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter believes the Danske Premiership race will go right to the wire!
Even at this relatively early stage, Baxter, who has won back-to-back titles, reckons it will be one of the hottest contested campaigns, with Linfield their main challengers.
Saturday’s top of the table clash at Windsor Park was billed as a potential classic. Sadly, it failed to live up to expectation.
The game was littered with stoppages and silly free kicks. Both teams huffed and puffed and certainly put in plenty of effort, but with so many potential match winners on show, the game was a big disappointment to both sets of fans.
“When the top two teams go head to head, you expect a tough, tight game,” said Baxter. “They (Linfield) had a bit of pressure in the first half and we stepped it up in the second half. Paul Heatley began to get at a few people and we got a few telling balls into the penalty area. That’s two scoreless draws this season between the teams. I’m happy enough going up the road with a point.”
Baxter stresses he expects more of the same over the coming months.
He added: “This is what our league is all about. Our next game is Coleraine . . . they are doing really well. They are right up there . . . Cliftonville are up there as well as Glenavon. It’s a really good league -- it’s exciting.
“Linfield have signed well. In Roy Carroll, they have a star goalkeeper. He may be coming to the end of career, but he is coming back to give something back to our league which is fantastic.
“He compliments them (Linfield) . . . he organises them. They have got people who want to play for the shirt. There is a lot of quality in the side . . . Mulgrew, Clingan, Smyth and Waterworth, but so have we.
“Teams are improving year on year. I said right at the start of the season that if we want to continue to do well in terms of retaining the title, we have to get better. It’s not the case of us sitting back and saying ‘we’ve won two championships, so we’ll ride off into the sunset and smoke a big cigar’.
“I told our boys that we would have to work even harder than what we were doing -- and that’s exactly what we are having to do. Everyone else (teams in the title chase) is working doubly hard against us. But I expected that.
“We are 13 games in. We are sitting top and I’m pleased with that. But we’ve got to keep that going. The players will not become carried away . . . they know what’s in front of them. But it’s great . . . we love it.
“If you manage your people well, you’ll get good results. I’ve got a number of good people in our management team -- people who work incredibly hard behind the scenes.
“They make sure the team is in tip-top shape all the time. There are huge demands on them, but the biggest part of it is the togetherness we have.”
Blues boss David Healy reckoned his boys did enough for all three points.
“Some people wondered if could stand up to the physical side of Crusaders’ game,” he said. “I think we answered those questions. We showed we could match them.
“In fact, I thought we just edged the game and were marginally the better team. I was pleased with our performance. In saying that, I don’t think either goalkeeper had to stretch for too much.
“It may have finished scoreless, but it was one of those games that kept you on the edge of your seat because you just didn’t know what was around the corner.
“The players have set the standard, not only today, but with their overall attitude and effort,” added Healy. “We’ve now matched Crusaders in the last four games -- there is not a lot between the sides. There is a long way to go. There are a lot of points to be played for. Trophies are not handed out in October or November.
“We’ve got to hang in there and pick up as many points as we can over the next month.”