Coleraine v Crusaders: Five memorable Kearney-Baxter clashes

Crusaders duo Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley and Coleraine striker Eoin Bradley
Crusaders duo Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley and Coleraine striker Eoin Bradley
BetMcLean League Cup final: Crusaders v Coleraine
Date: Saturday 15 February Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Kick-off: 19:30 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Ulster and online, and match report on BBC Sport website

Stephen Baxter and Oran Kearney - two names synonymous with the Irish League.

Respected and revered, they have spent the better part of 10,000 days in charge of their two teams.

Baxter, now into his 15th year at Crusaders, says Kearney - who is approaching a decade at the Coleraine helm over two separate spells - is someone to whom he offered advice when Kearney was handed the Showgrounds reins.

On Saturday evening, however, the two will come face-to-face as rivals as the Irish Premiership title race takes a backseat to the League Cup final.

It will be the 38th meeting between Kearney and Baxter. Here, we look back at five classic encounters.

Coleraine 0-1 Crusaders (League Cup final), January 2012

Crusaders matchwinner Chris Morrow celebrates with the trophy after sinking Coleraine
Crusaders matchwinner Chris Morrow celebrates with the trophy after sinking Coleraine

While it may not have been the most thrilling game, their last meeting in a cup final provides an interesting snapshot at how the two regimes looked eight years ago.

While Kearney's tenure at Coleraine was still in its infancy - having been appointed in February 2011 - the former Linfield midfielder had quickly established a stellar reputation at the Showgrounds.

In fact, Kearney went into the League Cup showpiece on the back of a 13-game unbeaten run, while the ink on his new three-and-a-half-year contract was barely dry.

The landscape at Seaview was markedly different. After seven years in charge, Baxter was battling increased expectations on the Shore Road having led the Crues to the 2009 Irish Cup and the County Antrim Shield the following year.

The north Belfast men also secured a second-placed finish in the league behind Linfield at the end of the 2010/11 campaign.

However, Crusaders showed no signs of nerves during a final in which they were comfortably superior. Chris Morrow's first-half strike proved decisive but Crusaders peppered Gavin Cullen's goal, with Jordan Owens and Colin Coates both going close.

It may not have set pulses racing, but this was the first significant meeting between Baxter and Kearney.

Coleraine 2-6 Crusaders (Irish Premiership), September 2014

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Crusaders beat Coleraine 6-2 in an action-packed Irish Premiership contest at the Showgrounds.

After a shaky start to the season which included draws with Glenavon and Ballymena United, and a defeat away to Portadown, this was the game in which Crusaders demonstrated their title credentials in merciless fashion.

Coleraine, unbeaten in their last three, succumbed to the blistering pace of Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte as Crusaders ran riot at the Showgrounds.

Heatley's brilliant first-half double put Baxter's side in control at the break before Whyte's pile-driver shortly after the restart made it 3-0.

Jet-heeled Heatley continued to terrorise the Bannsiders defence, being scythed down by Aaron Canning as he bore down on goal to win a penalty.

Gary McCutcheon converted from the spot before Ian Parkhill pulled one back for Coleraine. However, Jordan Owens and Diarmuid O'Carroll struck either side of David Ogilby's header to seal an emphatic away-day success for the Crues.

The only consolation for Kearney was that Crusaders would ruthlessly dismantle a lot of other defences with frightening regularity en route to their first league title in 18 years, scoring 93 goals in their 38 games.

Coleraine 3-3 Crusaders (Irish Premiership), January 2018

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Irish Premiership highlights: Coleraine comback denies Crues in top-two tussle

When Gavin Whyte struck twice in the first-half here, Kearney may have feared another long afternoon in the dugout, but his 2017/18 Coleraine side were made of stern stuff.

Locked in a two-way battle for the title with Crusaders, Coleraine knew that defeat would give the Shore Road side a well-timed psychological boost.

Such was their first-half dominance, Crusaders could have been forgiven for thinking that they had three points in the bag.

Jamie McGonigle had other ideas, however, pulling a goal back three minutes after the restart.

Heatley slotted home a third on the break, but still Coleraine refused to lie down, capitalising on Colin Coates' dismissal, with McGonigle scoring a brilliant second before Darren McCauley levelled 12 minutes from time to snatch a dramatic point.

Of course, the drama between the sides was far from over that season...

Crusaders 1-1 Coleraine (Irish Premiership), April 2018

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Irish Premiership: Crusaders 1-1 Coleraine

Like the 2012 League Cup final, this wasn't the frenetic, goal-filled spectacle fans had been hoping for.

But in terms of significance, it's difficult to overstate how important this game was with both teams gunning for the title.

Coleraine, two points behind their rivals going into this Easter Tuesday clash at a sold-out Seaview, were eyeing a first title since 1974, while Baxter's charges had designs on prising the Gibson Cup away from Linfield's grasp.

As is often the case with blockbuster top-two meetings, the players seemed somewhat overawed by the occasion during a cagey, scoreless first half.

Jamie McGonigle and Ben Doherty's 2019/20 stats (all competitions)
Jamie McGonigle and Ben Doherty's 2019/20 stats (all competitions)

Then, midway through the second period, the Irish League collectively drew a sharp intake of breath as Coates bundled Bradley over in the area.

Raymond Crangle pointed to the spot, allowing Crusaders' tormentor-in-chief McGonigle to send Brian Jensen the wrong way and spark ecstasy among the fans who had made the trip down the M2.

Coleraine were set to go top with four games remaining. But, with the promised land creeping onto the horizon, David Cushley popped up with a massive goal, drawing the hosts level with six minutes remaining to ensure they finished the evening with their two-point lead intact.

They maintained that advantage throughout that nerve-shredding final month as Coleraine were left to lament on what might have been.

Coleraine 4-2 Crusaders (Irish Premiership), September 2019

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Coleraine put four past leaders Crusaders

Baxter has joked that it feels like Kearney had never been away to Scotland. Indeed, when he returned to Coleraine after a season in charge of St Mirren, he duly picked up where he had left off.

Having already stunned Linfield at Windsor Park, Coleraine again showcased their heavyweight-crushing capabilities with another virtuoso display on Ballycastle Road.

After McGonigle scored in his first game against his former side since making the switch to Crusaders, Coleraine netted four unanswered goals before Chris Hegarty's late consolation to issue another emphatic statement of intent.

Five months on, there is little to separate them, with second-placed Coleraine just a point above Crusaders in fourth.

Of course, absorbing though the title race may be, the Gibson Cup will be of secondary significance come Saturday as Kearney looks to add to the 2018 Irish Cup triumph as Baxter plots an 11th piece of silverware as Crusaders boss.