Stephen Baxter On Crusaders FC And Being The Longest Serving Manager In World Football

Stephen Baxter On Crusaders FC And Being The Longest Serving Manager In World Football

An interview with Stephen Baxter, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You are the longest-serving manager in world football having been appointed Crusaders manager in 2005, where you remain in charge to this day. What do you believe has been the key to such longevity?

“Staying at the club for the length of time that I have is down to the number of good quality people that are working throughout the club.

“Everyone from the players and staff to the fans, our volunteers and the local community makes a difference at Crusaders.

“There are so many people who care for the club and love the club. They all give me great heart when things are going in the direction that we want them to go in.

“I have also been fortunate to bring success to the football club over my tenure and that means so much to me because to give back to everyone associated with the club means the world to me.

“We have a strong sense of togetherness which has led to loyalty, not only from myself, but a number of players who I have recruited over my time here who have stayed at the club for a long time too.

“I am as enthusiastic about the job today as I was when I started way back in 2005. That drive and determination to progress this football club has never left me.”

You have won three Irish League titles, four Irish Cups, and three County Antrim Shields. You also won the Setanta Cup in 2012 which was a competition comprised of teams from both football associations on the island of Ireland. What are your standout memories of each of those successes during your tenure so far?

“All of them mean so much to me and everyone at the club because success is hard-earned whether that be a league title success or a domestic cup or even an all-island cup like the Setanta Cup was.

“I would have to say that winning the Setanta Ireland was extra special for me because we went into the final against Derry City — who were the champions of the League of Ireland at the time — as underdogs.

“So, to go on and defeat them on penalties in a dramatic game at the Oval in Belfast was a huge achievement for our football club.

“In addition to winning trophies at home, I would have to say that our adventures in European football stand out to me as highlights of my tenure so far.

“We have played in European competition numerous times over my time at the club as manager and a memory that stands out is when we faced Premier League side Wolves in Europa League qualifying.

“For me, testing myself against a manager of the calibre of Nuno Espirito Santo at Molineux in front of at a full house was an incredible experience.

“That was an incredible feeling and a special night for everyone associated with Crusaders.”

The Irish League (also known as NIFL: Northern Irish Football League) has continuously progressed in recent years with more teams striving to become full-time. Investment in clubs is becoming more commonplace now too. How pleased are you by the growth of the league as a whole?

“I am absolutely delighted by the growth of the league because football in Northern Ireland is massive.

“The last five years have been spectacular with a rise in attendance at games year on year.

“That can only aid the development of our young players too as they are able to play in front of bigger crowds and develop their game in a highly competitive environment.

“We have seen a number of young Northern Irish players move to England with clubs in recent years for transfer fees which is another step forward.

“Added to that, clubs throughout the league are recruiting players from all parts of the world now which is a step forward for our game too.

“Those factors have led to more interest in the league and interest from a variety of media sources and long may that continue because I want to see football in Northern Ireland and the Irish League flourish in both men’s and women’s football.”

As a footballer, you played as a striker and scored many goals for a variety of clubs including Crusaders, Lisburn Distillery and Linfield. How would you describe your playing style? 

“I was an old-fashioned centre forward who liked the physical side of the game. My style of play was similar to that of Duncan Ferguson in the sense that I enjoyed battling with centre-backs and winning aerial duels.

“There is no better feeling than playing and scoring goals as a striker. Being a manager comes second to that because playing the game is what we all dream of as kids.

“I wish I could still be playing to this day.”

As a player, you won four Irish league titles and eight domestic cups. Which of those successes stand out to you now post-retirement?

“I won league titles at Linfield but I have to say that winning the first league title with Crusaders is a stand-out moment for me.

“I scored an important goal on the day that we won the title away to Ballymena United under Roy Walker so that will never leave me particularly as it was almost two decades since the club last lifted a league title.

“Winning any trophy is special, that goes without saying, but that victory and holding the league title trophy for Crusaders in my arms for the first time really stands out for me when I sit and look back now on my playing career.”

In 2019, you were recognised for services to football in the New Year’s Honours list. How proud a moment was that for you and your family?

“That was an incredible moment because you never expect them to come around.

“To be honoured in that way was a lovely thing and when I was called by the club to tell me the news, I almost choked because I could not believe it.

“It was a moment that my family and I will never forget. That is for sure.”

Finally, Stephen, what do you hope to achieve in the future with Crusaders as you approach your 19th year in charge of the football club?

“My aim is to continually push the football club forward and in a positive trajectory.

“I said on the day and on the hour that I walked into the football club as manager that I would stay for as long as people wanted me to stay and for as long as I was enjoying the experience.

“Both of those are still the case and as long as we are being competitive and winning football matches then I will continue to strive for success at Crusaders.

“If I ever lose my hunger for the job or we struggle to win football matches and things are not working out for the club then I will know the right time to step away.

“However, I do not anticipate that being any time soon because I feel more energised than ever to ensure that we challenge at the top end of the Irish League.”