Thursday, 9 August 2012

Crusaders F.C. 2011/12 A Season to Remember

Crusaders F.C. Setanta Sports Champions 2012What an end to last season it was for Crusaders. To put it in as few words as possible, Crusaders FC won the Setanta Sports Cup - only the 2nd Irish League side to do so and what a day it was, as I mentioned when we were looking forward to the two cup finals, winning one really did turn out to be the icing on the cake. It was probably the biggest achievement (outside of winning the domestic league) in the clubs history and combined with the Irn Bru League Cup win from earlier in the season, one of the most successful seasons for silverware the club has known. I think it put everyone in such a happy place especially considering the disappointment of the Crues losing the Irish Cup final in such a disappointingly foundering manner just 7 days before. The contrast of our experience between those two Saturdays in May was quite extreme.

The Irish Cup final was one to forget, a day where the usual depressing experience of watching a football match at Windsor Park was reflected by our own team's abject performance and we were deservedly beaten 4-1.

Depressing Windsor Park North Stand

I'm not even going to get into the issues and arrangements inside the ground that helped make it even more of a poor occasion but suffice to say, Linfield and the IFA have plenty to improve if they really want to provide a space and environment where people from all sections of society will want to attend football matches.

The positive from that day apart from the goal after half time was the huddle in front of the Crues fans that Stephen Baxter and the team formed. It looked from where we were sitting to be a motivational speech of sorts. I'm guessing the words that were said were somewhere along the lines of 'take this all in, how this feels, how it hurts and remember it when you're walking out at the Oval next week, give your all to make sure you don't have to feel that way again!'. After waving our black and red flags and clapping the players off as they picked up their medals, we headed back to Seaview to drown our sorrows.

The week flew by and we were soon waking up and getting dressed up once again in club colours to head to the Oval (Glentoran's ground) for the Setanta Sports Cup Final.

Setanta Sports Cup

Compared to how I'd woken up with apprehension and apathy the week before, this time it felt exciting, even though we were probably playing tougher opposition, it felt like we had a chance, it felt like the bigger occasion, the anticipation a cup final should have.

The Oval - Crues vs Derry

We walked from the Newtownards road across to the Oval - a neutral venue for both sides - in the sunshine, our heads and black and red chequered flags held high and billowing in the breeze. Again we were underdogs for the game, our opponents for the day, Derry City who play in the League of Ireland, the team who had knocked Linfield out at the quarter final stage of the same competition.

After getting some food and taking in a bit of the atmosphere we headed up into the stand. I always forget how small the leg room can be on some of those wooden seats in the main stand at the Oval and with my long legs we had to move seats. A stand which was made in an age when people were smaller aside, there was a more relaxed atmosphere at the Oval than at Windsor the week before. Both sides had fans behind the goals, both had a covered stand, both really seemed to be enjoying the day.

Derry City Fans flying club colours

As it got closer to kick off the tension and atmosphere built, there were plenty of club colours around the ground, both sets of fans were in good voice and it was all set for a great game. It was the build up to the game similar to that we experienced at the Ballymena Showgrounds with the CIS League Cup final earlier in the year, the buzz that just never materialised for me when we were stuck up on the Windsor meatpacking shelf the week before.

The teams came out and lined up and once the formalities were out of the way the game began.

Crusaders FC and Derry City Hand shake

Though the game was goalless for 80 minutes there were plenty of chances. Just a few minutes in, Derry keeper Gerard Doherty was able to keep out Timmy Adamson as he raced through. Not long after, Chris Morrow was denied by the post from a free kick.

There were more opportunities for both sides before half time but we felt more than a little unlucky not to have gone in at half time ahead and the thought that it wasn't going to be our day did cross my mind.

The 2nd half is when it really got going. In the same way the Crues had gone close early in the first, now it was Derry's turn as a header from a free-kick crashed off the bar and out. Not to be bettered, Chris Morrow was again soon to go agonisingly close, his volley somehow kept out by the Derry keeper at close range. Then with just a third of the game to play, Timmy Adamson almost broke the deadlock but his header from a corner became the 3rd time the woodwork was wobbled.

David Magowan Setanta Cup Final 2012

For the next 20 minutes there were chances at both ends before our fears came true as Derry went 1-0 with only 10 minutes left to play. It was, of all people, former Irish League player Rory Patterson with the goal, a good finish after a great set up deep inside the box, but you know what, as bad as it felt to go behind so close to the end, we could feel and see from the players reactions that we were not out of it yet.

The Crues restarted and continued to keep up the pressure. It paid off, with just 4 minutes to play, Captain fantastic - Colin Coates, got on the end of a Brentford bound Stuart Dallas' cross from a free kick and as it went in we were up on our feet cheering like crazy.

There was still time for more drama before the 90 minutes were up. We hadn't even settled down from the goal when David Rainey almost won it in normal time but unfortunately for us his shot went agonisingly wide.

Then the excitement turned to disbelief as a slide tackle out along the far touchline saw Crues defender Stephen McBride sent off after receiving a 2nd yellow card.

The 2012 Setanta Sports Cup final was going to extra time but the odds had swung in Derry's favour with their numerical advantage.

Over the last couple of seasons we've seen our team reduced to 10 men maybe a bit more regularly than we'd hope but if there was one thing we knew they could do well was to still be effective on the offensive whilst being a player short, we knew they'd give their all, the question was, with it being extra time in the final game of a very long season, how much more was there to give?

The answer was they had plenty left to give. Derry had plenty of possession but it was the Crues who almost scored through Declan Cadell as the Derry defence could only watch as he raced through but put his shot wide.

Then came a huge goal. Colin Coates again connecting with a Stuart Dallas delivery, this time from a comer. As that goal went in I felt a mixture of elation, disbelief and pride. With so much going wrong in the game the week before and the team not putting away the chances we'd had in this game, it seemed to be so much like one of those days but that goal blew those thoughts away. Against the odds we had the advantage for the first time.

Could the 10 men hang on? Well sadly no. It was a staunch effort mind you, each and every player did their utmost to keep Derry at bay and it wasn't through our defensive wall being breached that Derry scored, it was from a slightly harsh penalty call for a handball in the box. Up stepped that guy Rory Patterson again to take the spot kick and he made no mistake. So close but yet the pendulum had swung agonisingly away again. Thankfully that was the only Derry goal in extra time, Sean O'Neill denying McEleney's long shot and taking the game to the dreaded lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

Crusaders FC and Derry City Penalty Shootout

The blind hope was still there but it was tempered by experience, technically it could still be my team's day but past events have led me to despair the existence of a  penalty shoot-out in football. It's not that I don't enjoy watching them (if it's not my team) but I can't remember seeing a team I support (the Crues, Leeds or England) win one. I only remember them losing. Like Pavlov's dogs, I've been conditioned over time - but instead of salivating when the bell rings in anticipation of food, when the whistle sounds to end extra time, I resign myself to seeing my team losing. I doubt I'm alone.

So what happened next was the most magnificent penalty shoot-out I'd ever seen. Coates blasted his penalty home, Morrow bounced his off the keeper, Gargan had his saved but Morrison had missed his penalty for Derry the kick before so at 2-2 after 3 penalties each it was already going to be a case of one mistake. The next Derry player scored then up stepped Matthew Snoddy, even at the young age of 18 had all the composure of a seasoned professional and tucked it away, as cool as you like, sending the keeper the wrong way. It was now sudden death, Derry scored their 5h and then it was down to Stuart Dallas, his last competitive kick of the ball before a move to full time football in England, miss and we would have lost. He made no mistake.

The 6th spot kick for Derry was taken by McCaffrey, his shot, to our delight, was well saved by the stretching Sean O'Neill who got enough on the shot to snuff out it's path towards the goal. With that penalty saved it all came down to the unmistakeable figure of Gareth McKeown. The affectionate shouts of 'G, G, G, G, G, G, G, G' rang out from everyone in the stand as he made his way to the penalty box. He took his few steps back, the whistle blew, there was a moment of silence from the Crues fans and boo's from the Derry City supporters as everyone focused on the one kick that could decide it.

The ball was kicked, the keeper guessed the right way but the ball beat his dive, the back of the net rippled. Crusaders had not only demonstrated it was possible to win a penalty shoot out, the team had only gone and won the Setanta Cup!

Here is a video someone called Matthew Moore took from the Derry City end as the penalty was taken.

Crusaders F.C were the 2012 Setanta Sports Cup Winners - All Ireland Champions.

We were elated, exstatic, arms in the air, cheering and in awe. Gareth McKeown ran towards the stand in celebration as did the rest of the team and all the players and club officials down at pitch level.

We stayed in the stand well after the awarding of the cup which was a great moment (video taken by the same guy as above).

The players were all celebrating like mad and we marvelled at the trophy being paraded around the pitch. All the familiar faces we see in the stands each week through rain and shine were overwhelmed with happiness, there were even a few tears of joy sneaking through along side the manic grins and black and red chequered flags being waved - this time in celebration!

Waiting for the presentation

The players were all joined by their kids on the pitch and it was the start of the great party to come.

Crues players celebrate cup win

I can't remember it dying down so much as the celebrating just moved on, down the stairs, down the road, on the bus (where even fans of other clubs were asking the score and congratulating us) and back to Seaview. I was hyper and I don't think I managed to stop chattering manically until my mouth was being used to drink a celebratory pint of Guinness or 6 back at Crusaders Social Club.

Everyone, as usual, win or lose was back at the club and it was a brilliant night. The players came back a little later on after heading out for a celebratory meal and arrived in style on top of an open top bus waving the trophy in the air. The police had to close off the road for a while as the street filled and the fans sang.

We stayed down at the club til very late, after a short speech about the success of the day and the season (not forgetting that this was a cup double, the club having won the Irn Bru League Cup back in January) from our manager Stephen Baxter...

Stephen Baxter and the Setanta Cup

...there was plenty of dancing to the usual songs like the Killers - 'Are we human, or are we Dancer Crusaders'. it was a great day, a great game, a great atmosphere, a great night and even more importantly a great season.

Though the Crues hadn't done as well as we'd have hoped in the league, personally I think the Cup runs more than made up for it. It was an amazing achievement for a semi-pro side like ours to not only to play so many games (starting the season in the Europa Cup Qualifying back in June 2011 and playing in 4 more cup competitions) but to get to 3 cup finals in the process and grasp so much success from them. Meatloaf once said, '2 out of 3 ain't bad', I'd like to let him know, 2 out of 3 is brilliant! Here is a photo of the league cup again for good measure :)

IrnBru League Cup Trophy

This seasons European games against Rosenborg BK have since been and gone, the Crues came out of the home tie with a 0-3 deficit but defended brilliantly in the 2nd leg only losing 1-0 to a long distance goal that no keeper was stopping.

Which brings us nicely into the bread and butter of the new season when who knows what will happen, especially with the new sigings like Paul Heatley and Gary McCutcheon! Now I've seen the Crues win a penalty shoot-out, it's almost like the fear of daring to dream is gone - though I'll keep my feet firmly on the ground, it's a better place to launch from!

Supporters Club Crusaders Flag

Bring on 2012/13!

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