Monday, 6 April 2009

The big game is close to home.

On Saturday 4th April, the big game of the weekend in N.I for hundreds of people (including me) wasn’t some overhyped football match between Fulham and Liverpool. It was the Irish Cup Semi Final between two of the most improved teams of the top flight of the Irish League. Institute vs. Crusaders kicked off at 3pm at the Ballymena Showgrounds.

How I found myself enjoying the spectacle that is Irish League Football heavily involves Norn Girl who has graced Seaview with her presence since she was a toddler. As she adopted the unenviable position of supporting Leeds, I became a supporter or Crusaders F.C. My first game at Seaview was a cup match (I believe in 2003) which we drew 1-1, I wasn’t up to speed with the local cup competitions at the time but looking back I believe it was in the County Antrim Shield. Having only ever been spoilt with top flight English football at Elland Road, I do remember I spent the majority of the game comparing in a not so positive light the differences between the qualities of the game in front of us compared to what I had grown up watching. In retrospect, I completely missed the point.

The point being there is a huge difference in what as a fan you receive back from supporting a club where every fan matters and where you’re not just a faceless number.

Thankfully my first miss understanding didn’t deter me. The positive I took from what would have been not even a full first team playing at Seaview that day was the connection the fans had with the action on the pitch. It reminded me so much of the time I was supporting Leeds in a pre-season friendly away at York City. The game there also ended 1-1. It was also by no means a classic but the one thing I do remember so clearly was that same connection with the players and staff. When the ball came over the fence before the game and at half time we all played volleyball and throughout the time on the terrace we were singing and cheering. The players, many of whom weren’t in the first team responded to the fans and it made cheering them on through the game like cheering on your relatives, you could mock them in good spirit or cheer them on until you lost your voice and they appreciated it and it positively impacted their performance.

At the time Bradford born Harpal Singh was a player on the rise through the ranks at Elland Road at the time and he earned many a fan that day. Sadly he never made an impact on what was a very successful 1st team at the time; he’s now playing for Dundalk in the Eircom FAI League of Ireland.

So after a night of anticipation waiting for this Saturday to arrive we got dressed up in our shirts, scarves and hats and picked up our flags. Just after 1pm we arrived outside Seaview on the Shore Road and were guided to our bus by one of the supporter’s club members. Many other coaches joined us and we were on our way up the M2, destination Ballymena.

We arrived at 2.45 and made our way to the gate of the Warren St Stand. Unlike the impersonal frisking at many English Premiership grounds the security searching us were apologetic for taking up our time and we were soon inside the ground buying a program and some half time draw tickets and a bite to eat. The supporters groups had got together to ensure a great atmosphere for the game and over a hundred flags were being waved when the players lined up on the pitch.

Although there weren’t a huge number of Institute fans who had made their trip down from Derry those that had made the trip were also in high spirits.

It’s important to understand that Irish league football is frowned upon by many so called football fans here in Northern Ireland. We all know many so called fans who would rather pay through the nose to a digital TV station to sit at home and watch their favourite English Premiership top 4 side than head to a live local game for a fraction of the cost and a more interactive form of entertainment. So for the Irish league clubs who have to survive on a shoe string (even Linfield who do have an advantage over the rest of the league with a lucrative deal for use of their stadium for International games with the Irish Football Association) a crowd of several hundred is a decent attendance.

The match soon reached a high tempo and within 10 minutes we were 1-0 up thanks to a goal from Jordan Owens that would have had the pundits purring. That is if there was actually a highlights show other than 5 minutes of highly selective footage before the schools rugby at 5pm on a Saturday when no fan is even home to watch. The goal came after Martin Donnelly played a lifted ball down the left wing to Mark Dickson who’s first time looped cross to Jordan Owens was volleyed into the bottom left hand corner from just inside the area. We all went crazy and the red and black chequered flags filled the air. Goal number two arrived before we had chance to breath. Again a cross from Dickson found Owens whose header was parried by Allan Ryan in the Stute goal and it was scraped over the line by Eamon Doherty. The stand erupted again and the chant I really don’t like of ‘easy, easy, easy’ rang out. It was a solid performance by the Crues players who like their counterparts put their own livelihoods on the line each week giving their all for the club for very little financial reward.

After a half largely dominated by the Crues but with the odd moment of nerves in front of our goal the tie was made all but safe when Aaron Black made it 3-0 after being slipped through by Davy Rainey, it was a great finish that almost seemed to settle in right hand corner of the goal in slow motion. We were in dreamland and well on the way to the clubs first Irish Cup final in 29 years. I don’t think anyone expected such a clinical first half with the other 3 games this season between the sides having being so very tight.

Half time came and went and the second half saw another goal for each side. First Stute were awarded a penalty for a foul in the box that was calmly converted by Kevin Ramsey. Then after several substitutions, the game was put beyond any doubt by a fortunate if not quite spectacular own goal. A diving header sent the ball up in the air, crashing against the cross bar and over the line before bouncing out again.
The BBC have highlights of the match here!

As the whistle blew the emotion from Stephen Baxter (manager of the Crues), the staff and the players showed that it meant as much to them as it did to us. They came over and applauded and celebrated with us as we them. Unlike the usual crowds you see across the water, it was not only the Crusaders fans applauding our team but also those Institute supporters who had stayed behind after the whistle. Our players returned the applause to them as they made their way off the pitch and down the tunnel. Moments like that never get noted by the press as they like to focus on any minor negative event that might occur at such occasions but it’s the nice moments that stick in my mind.

A noisy but enjoyable ride home followed, the adrenalin still rushing through our veins and the prospect of a televised final against either Linfield or Cliftonville on May 9th to look forward to. With 5 matches in the league to go before then and with the weather improving, we’ve over a month of great entertainment ahead.

Although televised here in Northern Ireland, if anyone wants to join the Crusaders support at the final, you’ll be in for a treat. We’ll be singing our hearts out and waving our flags and willing our wee club from North Belfast on to win the cup. The atmosphere if past finals and semi finals of other cups are anything to go by will be electric.

Win or lose the players will do us proud and sure it won’t be the polished silky skills of the English Premiership on show but the difference won’t be too far short. Hopefully the financial side for clubs will improve soon which will enable to clubs to improve the skills on show. With the Crues, a cross-community project with Newington FC to relocate to a new stadium is in the pipeline to try and secure that future and benefit the community further than it already does.

What is lacking in precision within the game here is made up for with passion, honesty and excitement. After all in the Irish League it’s pride and the love of the game that drives the fans and clubs to stay afloat and the players to give their all.

C’mon Crues, you can do it!

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