Crusaders FC ended an 18-year wait for league title glory in Northern Ireland thanks to a 2-0 defeat of Glentoran FC at the weekend.
The north Belfast club had all but sealed the deal on goal difference ahead of nearest challengers Linfield FC the previous week, but Saturday's comfortable victory over the Glens meant they were officially crowned champions. Goals from dynamic midfielder Declan Caddell and livewire winger Paul Heatley – a strong candidate for the league's player of the season – scored in either half to spark the celebrations in earnest.
It is only the Seaview club's fifth title success and their first since 1994/95 and 1996/97, when boss Stephen Baxter was an imposing striker wearing the Shore Road club's distinctive red and black stripes.
The 49-year-old, who celebrated ten years in charge in February, said: "I feel incredibly privileged to have won the title as a player here and now to have managed Crusaders to the Gibson Cup. The club has won five titles in its history and I've been involved in three, so that is very special to me. I feel incredibly honoured. It's great to get across the line.
"I've seen supporters and grown men reduced to tears in recent days, so it is a very special achievement."
Baxter, who also won two league titles as a player with Linfield in 1989 and 1993, believes a potent mix of quality and team spirit saw the Crues power clear of his former club in the final straight. Since mid-December the Seaview men have been in irrepressible form, taking 43 points from a possible 48 in their last 16 league games.
"There is a very special bond in the changing room which is important," said Baxter. "At the same time, you cannot downplay the talent there is in this group. Good players win you major honours and we have a lot of very good players."
Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell paid special tribute to Baxter who has helped re-establish the club as a major force in Northern Irish football. As well as securing a first Irish Cup in 41 years in 2008/09, the inspirational manager has also lifted the County Antrim Shield in 2009/10 and the League Cup in 2011/12.
Crusaders were also crowned all-Ireland champions in 2012, defeating Derry City FC in the final of the Setanta Cup, a cross-border tournament featuring leading clubs from both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
"Since Stephen was appointed in 2005, we haven't looked back," said Bell. "He and his backroom staff have done an outstanding job. He is a credit to the club. Stephen won the league twice here as a player, so he has always been a legend at this club. But to manage us to the championship merely adds to that legend."
The Gibson Cup trophy will be presented to captain Colin Coates following Saturday's final home game against Glenavon FC, who secured third place and automatic qualification for the UEFA Europa League* with a 3-2 win over Portadown FC at the weekend.
Long-serving Seaview defender Coates said: "It's an unbelievable feeling. It's thoroughly deserved because the boys have been amazing all season. Individuals like Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens spring to mind, but it's been a real squad effort. Everyone has played their part. We're delighted to get the job done."
* subject to final confirmation from UEFA
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