Crusaders’ boss Stephen Baxter has refused to underestimate Ballinamallard as he prepares for this weekend’s Irish Cup final. The Belfast side will go into the match as big favourites, but the three time Irish Cup winners are expecting a tough challenge despite the apparent gulf in quality between the teams.

“We are aware of the challenge and I’m not taking the game as a David and Goliath tie,” said Baxter. “I won’t be worrying about our players not being up for it on the day, or underestimating the opposition. I think it will be opposite of that. We will be expecting a big challenge and rightly so. I know it will be tough game because Ballinamallard are well set up with experienced players like Richard Clarke and Rocket and young McCartney who have all been there and played in the senior league for a long time. We will not be underestimating them.”

Despite not plying their trade in the same division, the clubs have met this season when they were drawn together in the League Cup. Ballinamallard took the lead at Seaview that night before Crusaders scored two late goals to turn the game around, and Baxter has not forgotten how hard his team were made to work for the victory. “They gave us a very good game,” he acknowledged. “It was very tight and they took the lead, so I’m well aware of their team, their capabilities and the players that they have. We have played them in the league down there many times before they were relegated, and always had tough games against Ballinamallard. They have always been a team who have given us trouble. They know how to play and get results. You don’t get to an Irish Cup final by fluke so our boys will not be underestimating the challenge. Harry is a very astute manager who knows the league and has played at the top level in this country for many a year so he is well versed and knows the game inside out. He will not be frightened. He has claimed two scalps already in Dungannon and Warrenpoint so they have beaten top opposition and that will not frighten him. He will go into the game with a lot of confidence because of that.”

Crusaders have had a mixed season by their own recent high standards. The defence of their league title got off to a rocky start and they were unable to mount a sustained challenge to Linfield, so the Irish Cup has assumed even greater importance as they look to end the campaign with their first Irish cup success in ten years. “The league campaign has fizzled out, maybe in part because of the cup,” acknowledged Baxter. “We didn’t get off to the start we needed in the first month or two and were playing catch up for much of the season. We got ourselves back into it around Christmas with some good form, but we had one or two injuries, Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens in particular, that put us out of that again. After that we were really focussing and concentrating on the Irish Cup. We put all our eggs in that basket quite some time ago and it has taken us to a final. We will have to wait and see if that was a good call.”