Crusaders struggle with increased training schedule
Crusaders made summer headlines when they announced most of their squad signed new contracts to train five days a week. Heady expectations followed as the club looked to build on their position as Northern Ireland's best team over the past four years. Have things gone to plan?
The season began well with a 4-2 win over Ards although victory wasn't without it's problems. The Crues were pegged back to 2-2 from 2-0 up before a second-half brace saw them across the line. A home draw to Ballymena United followed. Again, they were forced to come from a goal down twice to secure a point.
Linfield were the next side to visit Seaview. The 2016/17 champions defeated Stephen Baxter's men 2-0 thanks to goals in either half. After a mixed start, Crusaders were expecting to get their season back on track when they travelled down to the border to take on Warrenpoint Town. Warrenpoint made a disastrous start to the season, losing every game. Undeterred, they took the lead against Crusaders and were set to earn a draw before Philip Lowry scored in the 92nd minute, saving the champions from embarrassment.
Last Monday, the Sky Sports cameras rolled onto the Shore Road to bring coverage of Crusaders against Coleraine to all their subscribers across the United Kingdom. Last season, these were the two best teams in the league, their battle for the league title waging to the season's final day.
Crusaders pipped Coleraine but on Monday the Bannsiders exacted their revenge in extravagant fashion. A goal from Josh Carson and a second half brace from Jamie McGonigle saw Oran Kearney, who subsequently took over for Alan Stubbs at St Mirren, head north three points to the good.
Training five days a week was supposed to take the Crues to the next level. What has gone wrong? Why has it been such a struggle and what does Baxter need to do to get things back on track? The most plausible explanation is the former part-timers weren't prepared for the work. Fatigue is holding them back.
Crusaders have extensive experience at the Irish League level. Most of the squad have been at Seaview for at least one title from the three one these past four seasons. During that time they were training two nights a week. The increased training is a shock to the system. At the moment they're not used to it. Perhaps a gradual implementation might have been better. Eventually, though, they will break through the barrier.
This isn't the first time we have witnessed a football team struggle to adapt to increased training sessions. When Mauricio Pochettino first took charge of Tottenham Hotspur his players looked leggy early in the season due to his double training sessions. Later on, the rewards came. Spurs were fit in the final ten minutes when opponents tired. It is the same idea here. In time, Crusaders' players will adapt to the extra work and they'll be much fitter than their rivals.
While it's easy for outsiders to say stick with it and the results will come, it's a tough situation for Baxter. His team have become accustomed to winning. The danger is by the time the rewards arrive, they may be too far behind. At the moment they sit seventh but are just four points behind joint leaders Linfield and Coleraine. With so much of the season still to play, the deficit is easily redeemable but with every passing week, the gap may grow. If Crusaders are to win their fourth title in five years, they need the turnaround to happen sooner rather than later.