That all seemed to change going into the 2nd half of the season, and especially in cup competition where there was still all to play for, the confidence and feel good factor began to rise again.
As I posted at the time, the season was already a success for the Crues after a great day on the 28th January when the Crues lifted the Irn Bru League Cup, beating Coleraine 1-0 at the Ballymena Showgrounds. At that point the Irish Cup had only just started a couple of weeks before and the Setanta Cup games were a couple of months away.
The games quickly rolled by and the team beat Warrenpoint Town, Glenavon, Coleraine and Dungannon Swifts to reach our 3rd Irish Cup final in 4 years. Again a meeting with Linfield at their home ground - Windsor Park - looms, and will be played on Saturday 5th May.
Intertwined between the Irish Cup games and the league games there was also the Setanta Cup - an All-Ireland cup competition featuring the top sides from the Irish League in N.I and the League of Ireland. This was only the 2nd season we've featured in this competition. Last season was the first but it was a very brief and strange introduction as we were drawn to play our North Belfast neighbours Cliftonville. In those games we rested some key players to focus on the league and unfortunately lost the tie.
This season was completely different. All cup competitions have been the priority given our league position and we were drawn in both the 1/4 and Semi finals against League of Ireland opposition. The first 2 legged tie was against Bohemians, in the home leg the Crues dominated the game and it's fair to say we should have got at least one or two that night if not more but it just wouldn't go in and it finished 0-0.
Sligo are a good team this season and like Bohemians are a professional team, and if rumour is to be believed, a side with a wage bill even Linfield couldn't get close to - but our semi-pro players were more than a match for them on the day, limiting Sligo to the odd pot shot and creating the best of the chances.
Unlike the Bohs match, the goals arrived at Seaview, both from David Rainey in a 2-0 victory. Very importantly, a clean sheet was kept (the away goals rules counts in this competition). It was a deserved lead to take into the away leg. That game was played on a wet Monday night but it was a great game. We all knew Sligo would be out to make amends in the 2nd leg.
In Sligo, the Crues had a couple of great opportunities to put the game out of reach but they weren't taken and though there was also a blatant hand ball decision that would have given us a penalty, it wasn't to be. Unfortunately, Sligo were very much in the game in that return leg, and before half time, Sligo went 1-0 up. The 2nd half began and it became apparent that Sligo had made it out of their shell. Before we knew it, it was 2-0 on the night and 2-2 on aggregate. That set the scene for an fast paced and open cup tie, both keepers keeping busy and lots of incident. As well as goal mouth action, somehow there were also 12 yellow cards, 6 for each side, it was played at a high intensity though like in all of the ties, some of the refereeing decisions had to be seen to be believed (for both teams in both games). However, neither team could find that deciding goal and so the game went into extra time. Again there were chances but the one that made the difference came from the penalty spot at the end of the 1st half of extra time. It was a little controversial as the contact for the foul appeared to begin outside the box and finish inside it but to be honest we were due that penalty from the first half that was never given. Up stepped our Captain Fantastic - Colin Coates, who smashed it just under the bar.
The Crues led 3-2 and after some resolute defending, the final whistle went and we were in the final. It was a very proud day to be a Crues fan.
The Setanta Sports Cup final on Saturday 12th May will be a rare meeting between Crusaders and the re-incarnated Derry City, the venue will be the Oval - Glentoran's ground. Personally I think it's a shame they couldn't do that for the Irish Cup final and use Windsor Park for the Setanta so that they're neutral venues but what can you do? No matter who we play and where we play, I can't see it dampening my spirits or the rest of the Crues support or the passion of the team to overcome the odds. Both games will undoubtedly be very competitive and, hopefully, another great advert for football on this island.
I'm really just over the moon that the club are doing so well and making these finals, it's quite the achievement for our club to be looking forward to 2 cup finals in the space of a week - on top of already having a trophy sitting in the trophy cabinet.
The team are playing for each other and have the confidence and skill. It's just a question of what happens on the day. If the squad can play like they have to get to these finals then we've a decent chance and though we will be the underdogs in both finals, all being well our players will pretend they're playing Fulham at Seaview and show no fear because that will be the mentality that might see us make some history.
The other reason that this season has been such a great success is the brilliant news that in the end we didn't need to come 2nd or 3rd in to get a Europa League qualifying place. Because we have ended up playing against the League Champions in the Irish Cup Final, win or lose, the European adventure will continue this July. So who knows, perhaps there is another memory to be made like Timmy Adamson's goal against Fulham at the start of this season?
Huge credit has to go to everyone at Crusaders FC, especially the players and staff - a club for the fans, run by the fans!
Just in case anyone is interested in coming along to either of the finals or watching the games on TV, the Irish Cup Final at Windsor Park this Saturday kicks off at 2.30pm and is an all ticket match (locations of ticket outlets can be found here - for the Crues end and here for the Linfield end). The game will also be televised on BBC Northern Ireland. The Setanta Sports Cup final is scheduled for 4pm on the 12th May and tickets go on sale Sunday. The game will also be televised on Setanta Ireland.