Acclaimed manager Stephen Baxter has described Crusaders FC's relegation from the Northern Irish Premiership in 2005 as a "blessing in disguise".
Six years after answering an SOS call from his former club, the 45-year-old Baxter can reflect on a very successful time in charge. Since guiding the Crusaders back into the Premiership in 2006, he has secured sixth, seventh, third and fourth-placed finishes.
His side won the Northern Irish Cup in 2009 – the club's first success in the competition since 1968 – and the County Antrim Shield in 2010. In addition, there has been appearance in the qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League in 2009, where they lost 5-3 to FK Rabotnicki of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
"Winning the Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield were magnificent moments, but leading the club back into Europe was also very special," said Baxter. "To be part of European competition again meant a lot to everyone at the club. I was delighted for the fans and club stalwarts like Jim Semple, Stephen Bell and Harry Davison."
Baxter, who won league titles with the Crues as a striker in 1995 and 1997 faced what seemed a gruelling task when he took the reins from Alan Dornan. His initial responsibility was short term – a nine-game stint to try and lift the Crues off the foot of the table and stave off impending relegation.
Now in his sixth season at the helm, Baxter is "still enthused" by the challenges of managing a club nestling in the shadows of Belfast giants Linfield FC and Glentoran FC. "It's no secret that Crusaders have modest resources compared to other Irish League clubs. We are a small club in comparison, but there is a real family spirit, a work ethic and a togetherness at Seaview that has always appealed to me."
Crusaders lie fourth in the Premiership, 11 points off runaway leaders Linfield, but victory against third-placed Glentoran FC tonight would put them second and back on course for another stab at Europe. That would be a real bonus given Baxter's expectations when he first took the job.
"Truth be told, I didn't expect to be still here in 2011," he said. "In today's climate, six years seems a long time to be manager of the same club, but I love it. I've enjoyed so many memorable moments and I'm still as enthused by the job as I was back in 2005. I count myself very lucky."
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