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Stephen Baxter: Crusaders boss on decision to leave, future plans and finding his successor

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter says his decision to leave the club has been "a year in the making."

Baxter, the longest serving manager in world football, will step down as boss at the end of the season after 19 years in charge of the north Belfast club.

And the 58-year-old believes the timing is right after a trophy-laden spell at Seaview.

"The last thing I ever want to do is outstay my welcome and that people get tired of me," he told BBC Sport NI.

"You have to take into account what is for the greater good of the football club at all times, how it moves forward and you've got to read the room. This is my time [to leave]."

Baxter, who spent six years across two stints as a striker with Crusaders, took over as manager in 2005, replacing Alan Dornan.

He was initially unable to keep the club in the top division but then guided the Crues to victory in the Intermediate League, Intermediate League Cup and Steel and Sons Cup in his first full season in charge.

Crusaders have since won three Irish Premiership titles, four Irish Cups, a League Cup, a Setanta Cup and three County Antrim Shields during Baxter's tenure.

Reflecting on his long association with the club, Baxter expressed his pride and said the achievements have been "phenomenal."

"When you play for the club for six years, then go manage straight off the bat and dedicate 25 years of your life [to the club], you sometimes have to say to yourself 'when will be the moment?'

"My late father always told to me leave a place in a better way than you inherited it and I was aware of that in the last few years, in what we have achieved and what we have walked through together.

"I will never be able to put into words what we have done and I have never sat back to think about how we did it."

'Beyond emotional'

Stephen Baxter with the Irish Cup
Baxter won the Irish Cup four times as Crusaders boss

He admitted that he first thought of stepping down two years ago after Crusaders beat Ballymena United 2-1 in a dramatic Irish Cup final at Windsor Park.

"I thought [about leaving] two years previous, when we got to the Irish Cup final first time round. My contract was up a year later and the club had been talking to me that summer and I went 'is this the time to step away on a really big high?'

"But then you're sucked back into planning for Europe and we've got to get things organised with the players were bringing in.

"You just get carried along on the wave and I have been carried along on the wave for such a long time."

Baxter said that telling his players of his decision was undoubtedly the hardest part of the announcement.

"When you've had a group of players around you as long as I've had these players with me, the likes of Jordan Owens, Billy Joe Burns, Jordan Forsythe and Paul Heatley, those type of players that have been here a lifetime with us, those moments are always difficult.

"There was a couple of hairy moments in that conversation I can assure you that," he conceded.

"It was beyond emotional and that follows through with your conversations with administrative staff, the board and various others who you have spent such a large part of your life with.

"It is always difficult to make an announcement of that size."

'My shadow can't hang over next manager'

Looking ahead to his future plans, Baxter didn't rule out the possibly of managing again, but insists his full focus for now, is on ending the season strongly with Crusaders.

The Crues currently sit fifth in the Irish Premiership table having been knocked out of the Irish Cup by Championship side Ards following a penalty shootout last month and they have lost their last five games in all competitions.

"I think anyone who knows me around this camp will know that my football enthusiasm is as alive today as it was when I started. How I do things, my team talks, my excitement and sometimes over-exuberance is based on my passion.

"I haven't made any decisions about my future I don't know what is next, I'm just concentrating on the next three months and that our team are ready.

"I haven't ruled out the possibly doing something else somewhere else. I've never applied for a job in my life!"

Baxter also says he will not involve himself in helping Crusaders to appoint his successor beyond giving advice if asked to.

"I think it is only fair I stay out of that process. I can give all sorts of advice when asked for help, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of who [to appoint], they need to make the decision for themselves."

He continued: "I don't want to get sucked into the Alex Ferguson and David Moyes one where you recommend and it is your fault because you picked the wrong person.

"It is the board's call, the club's call, not my call, but the shadow of Stephen Baxter can't hang over the next person."