Exciting times for the wee Crues from the Shore Road. There are 4 months of the Irish League football season still left to be played and though things haven't gone perfectly so far, I'm bracing myself for a gripping ride following the season to it's conclusion in May and cheering on the Hatchetmen all the way. Here is my take on Crusaders F.C's season so far and a quick round up of what might still be to come.
Football can be cruel: Some results haven't been entirely kind and one particularly bad performance saw Crusaders end up on the wrong end of an 8-1 hammering to Linfield.
Football can also be kind: The Crues then beat Linfield 2-1 at home, scoring our goals with only ten men on the pitch and as you'll read below, that never say die attitude means the team still have a lot of opportunities awaiting them.
Currently the Crues sit 2nd in the 12 team league, 2nd higest scorers but also having the 2nd highest goals against record. The side's league form has blown hot, cold, then hot again, but despite the ups and downs, Crusaders still have quite the record in having scored in every one of the 35 games they have played in all competitions. Win, lose or draw it's been one crazy season so far but, like any roller-coaster ride, full of excitement.
To add to that excitement, it has to be said that the Crues have also sadly received the most red cards in the league. Having watched plenty of these games, I would say from observation that this particular stat has been compounded by what I would consider a fair bit of inconstant refereeing and this has tended to wind up both managers, players and fans alike. Not much you can do about that though, every team is in a similar boat. Earlier in the season it seemed like we were having a man sent off every game but thankfully that has since subsided.
On a more positive note, the for and against stats tend to reaffirm that the Crues are a team creating lots of chances and playing a lot of football rather than being a team keeping things tight and playing cautiously like a lot of the teams. This is certainly something anyone having seen Crusaders this season is likely to have appreciated, the attacking side of the style of play adds a lot of entertainment. I'm not to try to make any unjust excuses however with a small squad - injuries and suspensions have played a big part in the team conceding so many goals. Suffice to say, between all the talking points and all the goals there has hardly been a dull moment, great games to watch if you're a neutral.
Watching the Crues this season has at times been quite a pleasure. Norngirl hasn't much liked the cold of this winter but to create all those goals it's no shocker to say the Crues have some great attacking players in the team. The manager Stephen Baxter has continued to improve the side even from the highs of the Irish Cup Final in 2009.
It may still be early days but in my opinion the signing of the season so far has been Stuart Dallas.
Dallas was signed from Coagh United during the summer on the back of impressing in an Irish Cup game at Seaview last season. In my view he has been nothing short of a sensation (just enough for most of us to forgive him for supporting Liverpool ;) ).
I don't mean to give the guy a big ego but going by what we've seen it would be a travesty if he doesn't get signed by a club from across the water before long (hopefully to Leeds ;) ;) nudge nudge Simon Grayson). Whoever does snap him up will have a gem on their hands, if no one does, their loss will be Crusaders gain.
A lot of armchair football supporters might disagree but I believe Irish League players on their day can do anything a multimillionaire player in England can do, I mean look at the goal Matty Burrows scored for Glentoran against Portadown that got him nominated for FIFA goal of the Year.
The problem in terms of standard, as with footballers everywhere, is being able to repeatedly demonstrate the highest level of their skills on a very consistent basis. With some players you can just tell they have that ability in them. So far this season, Dallas has shown a lot of that consistency and typically his awareness and ability have been higher than his opposition who have often struggled to contain him. His control, movement and versatility is something you don't often see and you can just tell he has that something extra.
Elsewhere in the team, Colin Coates has been solid and though the defence has conceded a lot, he has again been a rock when playing. He's a leader who has been able to influence games in the sides favour both in defence and up front.
Chris Morrow also deserves a big mention for his performances; having been out for a long time with a broken leg, he's now back to his post injury form this season. Arguably one of the best midfielders in the league, he has a trickery and finesse about his play that can easily open up a defence. Morrow has also been impressing elsewhere recently after being drafted into the role of goalie on two occasions, most notably 60 minutes in net in a 2-3 away victory over Newry City.
Another player who has shone more and more as the season has progressed is Aidan Watson. I'd say he hasn't had the plaudits in the press that his performances have deserved largely due to his position as a combative midfielder but ask any Crues fan and they'll let you know how much he's given to the side. Watson was signed by the Crues from Ballymena United at the start of the season and due to a bad leg break to Ryan McCann, Aidan gained a regular place in the side and has gone from strength to strength, the guy has quite a leap on him and doesn't let much past him or give much away.
I could sing the praises of so many of the side this season, with so many goals, there have been many highlights, some great goals and lots of dramatic twists both for and against.
What is certain, is that is that with four months left, the Crues still have so much to play for.
Though the league title is likely to be out of reach due to a dominant Linfield side whose depth of squad should see them through to the end, there is still the chance of a top 3 finish which would see the Crues make the qualifying rounds of European competition next season.
At the start of the season, my hope was just a top 6 finish and thankfully we're already all but mathematically there with 6 games to go before the split and to be honest that's me happy as it maintains the great progress the club has made in recent years.
Other than the bread and butter of the Irish League, Crusaders are also still in 2 cup competitions. Having reached the semi finals of the County Antrim Shield back in October - losing out to Glentoran 2-1, the team then missed out on a place in the CIS Cup Final on penalties against Lisburn Distillery in a one legged tie where we were the away side. With that in mind the team will be eager to go further in the 2 competitions remaining, especially the Irish Cup. This Saturday just gone saw the Crues reach the quarter finals with a hard fought 2-1 home win against a plucky Nortel side.
In the draw Crusaders were drawn away against either Ballinamallard United or Lisburn Distillery. With Distillery likely to come out on top, it looks likely to be a re-match at Grosvenor with the Crues having a score to settle from that CIS Semi Final penalty shoot-out defeat.
The other cup competition is the Setanta Sports Cup. It will be the first time the Crues have been in this competition and we will be playing against opposition from the Eircom League of Ireland in a two legged Quater final tie in March. Whoever the Crues play, we're likely to be underdogs and it will be tricky but the good news is we'll be at home for the 2nd leg.
With so much still to play for I really can't wait for the games to roll around. There are some huge games coming up, games that are likely to make or break the heights the team can reach this season.
The first of those games is our next home game which is at 7.45 on Monday 21st February at Seaview, a game that is also going to be live on Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports HD1 if anyone wants a taster - though obviously being there in person holds many times the experience.
Off the pitch there are also likely to be several developments with the clubs infrastructure in the months to come, as reported in the Crusaders FC match day program on Saturday, ..."contracts for the two new stands, turnstile areas, toilets and perimeter fence will commence on Tuesday 22nd February".
Good times, bring it on.