IRISH LEAGUE: Points over plaudits for title-chasing Crusaders at Portadown

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter. Pic by Pacemaker.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter. Pic by Pacemaker.

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter on calling on the combination of title-winning experience and trophy enthusiasm to steer the defending champions towards a championship hat-trick.

The league leaders visit the Danske Bank Premiership’s bottom side this weekend with the advantage of a nine-point lead over Linfield entering the final nine fixtures.

With every point vital across the title run-in, Baxter is backing his players to maintain the drive which has left Crusaders with maximum points from the 2017 programme and a road run of a single reverse following 15 away tests this season.

“At this stage, it is all about finding a way to get those three points from each game,” said Baxter. “We are in a good run of form but I don’t reminisce, we concentrate on what’s in front of us.

“It is about trying to be relentless, finding a way to dig out those results.

“The number of single-goal wins and games when we have come from behind show that desire and focus across the squad.

“Now we want to keep as many players as fit as possible as there is experience but also that hunger from the new signings.

“Howard Beverland and Paul Heatley are both suspended for Portadown but we have competition for places.

“Niall Currie always puts out teams that are organised and we cannot afford to let our focus slip facing Portadown.”

Defence may prove the best form of attack for Portadown entering the closing stages of the season.

Currie’s players left Windsor Park last Friday having secured a share of the spoils against high-flying Linfield, finishing minutes away from a memorable win.

A solid foundation and renewed team spirit proved at the heart the 1-1 draw for a Ports side rooted to the bottom of the table and without a point across 2017 leading up to that Belfast kick-off.

Now Currie is keen to use that morale-boosting draw as a blueprint for this weekend’s evening clash with back-to-back champions Crusaders.

“To be honest, that Linfield performance provided the kind of energy and commitment we want to see over the rest of the season,” said Currie. “That dedication to the shirt will be a positive way to finish the season irrespective of results.

“The work-rate was fantastic from front to back and, rather than go toe-to-toe, we concentrated on setting up right and proving hard to beat.

“It will take a similar performance against Crusaders and we want to use that Linfield game as a platform and example for the rest of the campaign.

“We have got to believe we can do it again down the line.

“We need to approach the Crusaders game in a similar way really in terms of accepting the fact we can expect pressure but to stand up and work together.

“Chris McGaughey will miss the Crusaders game due to injury, with Garry Breen and Keith O’Hara still out but Jordan Lyttle back in training.

“It is too early to make a call on Mark McAllister, Ken Oman is suspended and Matt Hazley has a dead leg.”