It was either going to end in a fairytale or as just yet another day to add to those that fall under the long list of ‘great to be there but to try and forget to keep sane and not let the disappointment tip you over the edge because it doesn’t quite feel like just a game’. Personally, I’ve followed football in an almost religious fashion since I was old enough to understand what it was. As most of you who follow English football might be aware, supporting Leeds United over the last 17-20 years (although starting well - and the odd good league finish) has brought more lows than highs, especially in recent times. So when it comes to cup finals and expectations, my dafault stance is to expect the side I support to lose. I’ve seen both the Crues and Leeds lose cup finals but never win one. For some reason though the 9th May was a bit of an exception as I had more hope than usual. After all, Crusaders FC had surpassed all expectations this season in finishing 3rd in the league thanks namely to the brilliant management of the team by Stephen Baxter.
For anyone who doesn’t follow Irish League football or those who aren’t too aware of Crusaders F.C. in 2005, after a 56 season spell in the top flight, the club were relegated to the Intermediate league for the first ever time in the clubs history. Stephen Baxter took over the helm just prior to the club’s relegation but was unable to stop the inevitable. The club, although thankfully not in the figures involved at Leeds, was never the less in serious financial trouble. The future didn’t look bright or at all possible that just 3 seasons later the same manager would be leading a side out to challenge for a trophy that even successful managers with much larger budgets in comparison to other clubs in the league hadn’t managed to acquire. For a longer history of the club here is a more substantial read.
The morning of the big day arrived and the press were all seemingly jumping on the Cliftonville bandwagon - even though we had finished higher in the league they were being tipped as slight favourites. The rain was quite heavy that morning and as Windsor isn’t usually the best ground to hold its drink we were holding out for news of whether the game would still be on. It was and nervously we waited for the time to come to set off, we got dressed up in all our match day colours and got our flags and tickets together.
Soaked as we made it to the bus, it seemed like it was going to be a long day. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we were in South Belfast and walking into the ground under the now bright sunshine. Behind the South Stand where the programmes and sweets and burgers were being sold, it was a sea of Red and Black, kids, adults and OAP's alike, everyone was in high spirits.
We found some seats in the stand near the folks who start the anthems going from the stand and got our flags some early wave time. The atmosphere was carnival like and it built until the kick off when it reached its crescendo for the time being.
The game was tight, both team as is understandable in a Cup final and local Derby didn’t want to give anything away. A few good chances fell to the Crues, one very good chance was blazed over the bar from the centre of the box from Jordan Owens and the thought that it just wasn’t going to be your day (again!) were encroaching on my conscious.
During half time and a very long queue for anything (namely the toilets) the atmosphere – at least from my point of view - turned nervous. The anticipation is the killer and luckily the queuing for a wee distracted me for almost the whole of half time until the game resumed.
The 2nd half got off to a flier. After a couple of minutes the ball broke down the left wing to Mark Dickson who was brought down about half way from the touchline to the penalty area. The resulting free kick taken by Martin Donnelly was played into the area and the brilliant Colin Coates got up to head the ball back to Dickson. His volley from just to the left of the penalty spot sent the ball flying into the net leaving the keeper and defenders no chance. I went absolutely crazy as did a couple of thousand people around me. 1-0 Crusaders. Here is a video from the BBC of Mark Dickson's goal, well worth a watch, a great finish.
Just after the goal we had another chance and it was looking good but Cliftonville soon started to keep us in our own half and had the better opportunities in the remainder of the game. Coates called upon once to clear the ball of the line, Chris Keenan to pull off a couple of fine saves. Gary Smyth at one point had to make a last ditched interception that ended up coming off the top of our own crossbar. So it boiled down to the last 10 minutes and it was backs to the wall defending. Luckily the whole team were not going to let it slip through their legs without giving their all. Still the nerves were at fever pitch and anytime the ball went near our penalty area the tension rose. The songs were fewer and the biggest cheers from our section of the crowd became those for clearances to safety or goal kicks.
Injury time slipped away and we were almost there! The dying moments saw the ball once again cleared and a chance for a final goal but the ball ran too long for David Rainey and out for a goal kick. It didn’t matter though, the goal kick was hurriedly taken but time was well and truly up and the ball flew through the air and whistle blew. We also flew into the air as did our black and red chequered flags and the sound of the happiest fans in the whole of Northern Ireland if not the world that day. The rest is a blur but it involved straining my voice box and jumping around a lot, more cheers as the team lifted the trophy and the celebrations afterward. The house became decorated in Crues colours and I still have a smile on my face to this day! After so many lows, tasting a high I suspect feels all that much better!
An amazing achievement – a real fairytale and a day I doubt any Crusaders’ fan present that day will ever forget. I never thought seeing a team I support passionately win something would feel so good. It really surpassed my expectations and I just hope I can experience something similar again in the future both with Crusaders and with Leeds. The icing on the cake is that although Crusaders were going to be in the early Europa League 1st qualifying round for finishing 3rd, we’re now in the next qualifying round so might draw a bit more of a more high profile team and a nicer away day.
Win, lose or draw, roll on next season!