Stephen Baxter: Crusaders boss wants to see Belfast rivals Glentoran back on song
Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter saw his side dispatch struggling Glentoran from the Irish Cup - then stressed a desire to see the troubled club return to former glory days.
Preparations for the fifth-round tie featured a management change as Gary Smyth gained the Glens hot seat in the aftermath of Ronnie McFall’s resignation.
Although Smyth and coach Paul Leeman had a sole training session in which to rebuild a Glentoran squad stuck in the worst run of league results across the Oval outfit’s history, both can call of course on decades of experience connected to the club as highly-successful players plus, since May 2018, the management team.
Defeat by 4-1 to Crusaders following a Paul Heatley brace and goals from Jordan Owens then Matthew Snoddy killed off hopes of any Irish Cup run but Smyth accepts the true challenge comes in pursuit of league points.
A debut goal for Lukasz Gwiazda offered a rapid response to Heatley’s first before the hosts’ superior strength served to send Crusaders marching on and Glentoran aiming to move forward off initial baby steps under Smyth.
“You have to be pleased with four goals, home victory and into the hat,” said Baxter. “I thought the travelling support for Glentoran was exceptional and brilliant to see them back in numbers.
“I hope they continue to back two exceptional guys in Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman, two very good friends who are great football people and great Glenmen.
“It will be exciting as they’ve very good players at Glentoran and just need that break of the ball.
“Gary and Paul will do an exceptional job, leaving no stone unturned and I wish them every success in the future.
“I’ve said it for the last four, five or six years that the league needs a strong Glentoran.
“It’s a huge club, I was there as a 16-year-old and spent two or three seasons with Glentoran.
“It needs investment and people to come in and back what’s going on but there are very good people at the club.
“There are people I’ve known a lifetime connected to Glentoran, people I would call friends, so I really want to see the club back in it.
“They talk about the ‘Big Two’ of Linfield and Glentoran, then there is Crusaders and Cliftonville, so when all four clubs are going well the big numbers are out and Belfast football is lively and exciting.
“There might be some rivalry and high competition but mutual respect.”
Although Smyth will value the plaudits from his old friend and new managerial rival, the Glens boss is aware of the need to push forward - bolstered by the cup tie’s initial positives towards long-term league progress.
“For an hour or so it was 50-50 and we probably had the best chances over a first half in which there was nothing between the sides,” said Smyth. “It was important, after conceding the first goal, that we got back quickly but then disappointing for the second and third, plus a backpass leading to the fourth.
“It’s a cliche to praise the effort and at half-time we stressed it’s not about pats on the back for working hard.
“There was a good feeling beforehand and after the equaliser we were looking to go to the next level.
“Crusaders showed their class to respond and you are still in the balance at 2-1 but then to score inside our ‘six’ on the bounce for number three, we should probably be doing better defensively, with the fourth heart-wrenching but Nathan Kerr had played so well so he and the team didn’t deserve it.
“Crusaders got stronger as the tie went on, they are fit and sharp with everyone wanting it.
“It was cagey at 1-1 and 2-1 but, naturally, the boys’ heads dropped at 3-1.”