Crusaders consolidate their position at the summit with a five day week
Crusaders Football Club have made an unprecedented move, by confirming 22 members of their first team squad have signed new contracts, along with their manager. That will see the North Belfast club train on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings; in addition to the Tuesday and Thursday evening sessions that has long since been the norm for Irish League clubs.
The Irish League is a long way away from the full-time sides across the water in Scotland and England, while the vast majority of players in it are part-timers. A few clubs have handed out professional contracts to their stars but overall, it is very much a part-time league. Along with this new setup, four players signed professional deals, although one of them, Gavin Whyte, has since signed for Oxford United. Of the others, six have penned improved deals to reflect the extra training sessions until 2020, with another 12 signing more lucrative offers until 2021.
Crusaders' investment has mostly been funded by the clubs recent success on the field, which has led to participation in European competitions. They have won three of the last four league titles and really should be looking at four in a row, but they threw away a big lead last season with David Healy's Linfield pipping them to the title. Traditionally, Crusaders wouldn't be up there amongst the biggest clubs in the league. Typically, it's their Belfast rivals, Linfield and Glentoran regarded as the big two in Northern Ireland with 75 league titles between them to Crusaders seven. However, there has been a switch recently, with five of the last six titles going to Crusaders and their North Belfast neighbours, Cliftonville.
The extra training sessions should see Crusaders maintain their status as the best team in Northern Ireland as they will be the only team in the league that are training full-time; which should mean they are a lot fitter than their opponents. The champions are building from a position of strength and although Whyte moving to Oxford will be a big loss to them, they have already witnessed several players leaving to join the professional game before, in Stuart Dallas, now of Leeds United. They coped with his loss fairly well.
Crusaders manager, Stephen Baxter will also join his players in going full-time, having already left his day job. Baxter has been quoted in interviews as saying the full time hours will give him more time to prepare training sessions, while also being able to make use of the technology that the club has invested in. Their players now regularly wear GPS vests with all the data being fed back to computers at the club; further enhancing their performances.
While this is all relatively new in Northern Irish football, Crusaders still have a long way to go before they really reap any rewards from the new approach. They find themselves in a position where they are at the pinnacle of football in the country, but they still remain a long way from any level of success in European competition. As Northern Irish champions, they kicked off their Champions League campaign last week and were destroyed 7-0 by Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria; which goes to show the gulf in class that they are trying to close.
Nobody expects an Irish club to win anything in Europe, nor do they expect them to qualify for the Champions League group stages but south of the border, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have both reached the Europa League group stage and as Crusaders can now almost be considered a full-time club, then that should be the target for the Shore Road side. Whether they make it or not is anyone's guess, but you can be sure Baxter and his staff will do all they can to make that dream a reality.