With the Danske Bank Premiership simmering away nicely and some important cup games approaching, it's time for me to serve up my Crusaders FC 2012-13 season half time report.
After the great cup successes of last season and all the distractions of sport during the summer, the beginning of this one was like someone unexpectedly speaking to you whilst you're day dreaming - that strange feeling of being pulled back to reality. The feeling didn’t hit immediately, I didn't expect the Crues to beat Rosenborg in the Europa League qualifier and though we lost 4-0 on aggregate it wasn’t disheartening. Only losing 1-0 in the away game to a brilliant long range strike was indeed encouraging. The worry came after being beaten 8-2 in a pre-season friendly at home to Harrogate Town, (and no disrespect to Harrogate Town) that was the ‘being dragged back to reality’ moment. Though it didn't mean too much as it was just a pre-season friendly, it did feel a little more ominous when we also lost the opening game of the season 3-1 away to Coleraine with a lackluster performance. That was soon followed by a disappointing scoreless draw at home to Ballymena.
Thankfully, it was just something of a hangover (given the celebrations after the Setanta Cup win, maybe an actual one!) and like all hangovers it eventually dissipated. Most of the side re-gained that extra yard they had seemed to lack (that we knew they had in them) and the 1st win soon followed with a 1-3 away victory against a poor Lisburn Distillery side, this being the first of 4 wins in a row in all competitions for us. It wasn’t a time to rest on laurels though. No sooner had form returned (and oddly after a victory away to Linfield), we went and lost all of our away games in September (to Glenavon, Portadown and Dungannon respectably). Of greater concern were some rather disjointed team performances at this time, for even when we were still winning games at home, a lot of the games saw us often giving up possession needlessly and playing exactly the wrong kind of ball for the skill set of the player being passed to..
I could be wrong but from my perspective a lot of this was due to players getting used to one another’s playing styles and strengths. With the likes of Paul Heatley, Gary McCutcheon and Josh Robinson arriving and being so pivotal, there were some new strengths to play to. In hindsight it just took a while for the side to get used to playing alongside one another and for it to click.
As soon as the dots were connected - that McCutcheon likes the ball played to feet, that Heatley can pick a cross field ball out of the air like a dolphin in a show then run at a defense with pace and that Robinson has the composure of a player twice his age and could be readily relied upon; things soon picked up!
Injuries also had their hand in each starting 11 finding it hard to set a mould that suited the squad. The Liverpool glamour friendly was a great occasion but it saw two of our side pick up injuries, Jordan Owens a calf strain and Colin Coates an ankle injury which kept him out for quite a while. When he did come back it turned out to be a little premature but he’s OK now. Chris Morrow was out for a long time but he too is back in action again now which is great news. The other long term absentee has been our former speedy winger who returned to us this season - Eamon McAllister, hopefully he'll be back and pushing for a place in the side soon.
The Liverpool game itself was an odd one, the score line was 3-1 to Liverpool and it was an entertaining game but that wasn't what intrigued.
As an Irish League football supporter, on one hand it was great to see the Crues play a young Liverpool side and it was brilliant to have a big crowd for a game, but on the other hand it was a sad reminder of the challenges the Irish League faces. I mean in how many other major cities in the UK and Ireland would more local people show up in the shirts of another city’s team to a friendly held there with a local team playing? Not many I’d assume. Well on this occasion more turned out in Liverpool shirts to a friendly than would show up to the entirety of the Irish League fixtures on most normal Saturday afternoons. There were probably twice as many there for a friendly than showed up for last season’s Irish Cup Final!
The good news is it reveals the demand is there for professional football here (if it can be achieved) but yet it tells us something else we already knew, that even with the advantage of geographical remoteness from the English Premier League, it's still a huge challenge to get people to come to watch a live football match in person locally without an established brand of another club from a bigger league involved. Going into all this in detail is something for another blog post but I do agree with the sentiment from this Belfast Telegraph piece in terms of us having “become a nation of event people” where people pay to attend a match primarily “to see and be seen, enjoy a refreshment or three, be entertained and to come away with a sense of occasion”. The pivotal thing being that getting people to attend a game is now less about the sport itself and following it through the season - “the game, any game, is no longer the sole attraction”. As a fanatical football fan it’s not a great thing to hear - supporting my teams through thick and thin, hell and high water, the good and the bad, is part of the camaraderie, integrity and appeal of football. It’s a bizarre thing though, this is nothing new, football grew to it’s current worldwide popularity out of the same attitudes we have today just at a different time in our recent history. The sport hasn't changed much but the average person’s expectations of what constitutes an event and how they access it has changed over that time. More on that in another post though, that’s a long term conundrum. In the meantime, lets get back to the season at hand.
Thankfully, even during that string of not so great performances back in September, there was enough cohesion and motivation left in the tank to collect enough points at home to keep us not too far off the leading 2. The teams at the top for the majority of the 1st half of the season were the early pacesetters in the form of surprise package - Ballinamallard United and our local rivals - Cliftonville. Thankfully that changed and the Crues worked their way into 2nd. Currently, the Reds are (at the current time – 11th January) in 1st place, 6 points ahead of the Crues and with a game in hand. Just a little further back, a resurgent Linfield ominously lurk in 3rd spot. Their poor season so far has been a refreshing demise for the rest of the league but everyone knew it was only a matter of time before they got going again. Squad depth will earn them the points they need to keep pace and they will be somewhere in the mix come the end of the season. Put it this way, if Linfield don't get a top 3 finish or win a couple of cups, it'll be the worst use of resources in football since Chelsea bought Fernando Torres. After Ballymena of all teams beat them in the final of the CAS Cup and we knocked them out of the IrnBru, hopefully the redistribution of prizes away Windsor, home of the IF… Linfield, continues!
It's certainly looking like an exciting few months ahead as it’s an intriguingly poised League campaign. So what about the cup competitions mentioned just now and those still to be played?
In the County Antrim Shield and IrnBru League Cup, Crusaders lost 0-1 at Seaview to Linfield in the semi-final of the CAS but got own back in the IrnBru League cup semi final with a 0-1 win at Windsor Park. Crusaders now meet Cliftonville at Windsor Park on the 26th January (Live on Sky with a 5.30pm Kick Off). It'll undoubtedly be the most watched North Belfast derby since the 2009 Irish Cup Final and one to look forward to even if due to league position and the last league meeting between the 2 sides, the Crues will go into it as underdogs. Before that though, there is an Irish Cup 3rd round tie against Linfield (yet again!) and a bit later in the season, around March, some Setanta Cup games.
Hopefully in all these games to come there will be less crazy (often laughable) refereeing decisions than some of those we've had so far - mainly in the league. From conceding a penalty (that late on pretty much cost 2 points) due to a linesman confusing the hell out of 22 players - to offside goals - getting booked for taking a free kick too quickly without being told you couldn't – getting booked for just lifting your shirt to your mouth in celebration - to having penalties given against you for... ermm… we still don't know even with video evidence! Don’t even get me started on the usual of being booked for everything and anything yet opposition players perform an identical foul in the same game and get away with it (which happens far too often seemingly because of our 'reputation' as a physical side). In fairness though there have been a few good refs who have let games flow and even made some right decisions in regards to big calls – some being calls against us – so there is a little hope on that front.
Despite this sprinkling of perplexing events, the Crues are still unbeaten in the League at home this season, Seaview has become a fortress once again. In recent past seasons, our team's counter attacking abilities tended to favour us in away games and our away form tended to be better than our home form. This season though it's been our home form that has been great and it seems to have come from a little bit of a shake up in the team. Players like Declan Caddell have also really come of age and are keeping much cooler heads in midfield and with that the core of the side seems sturdier. My guess is that it's either been a change of tactics given to the players, a growing maturity among the squad or just a differing playing style added to by the newer players to have been added to the side. Whatever the reason or if just down to chance, what it has resulted in is not being so gung-ho all the time. For the most part our goals against have been lower so far this season. The side has demonstrated much more composure in the bigger games (well apart from the little spell of being disjointed early on). It’s a nice change, a lot easier on the pulse. There have still been occasions when it's been heart in mouth time but thankfully Sean O'Neill has been a stand out player whenever he's been called upon.
Going forward we've also been pretty good, plenty of goals and we always look likely to score. Timmy Adamson has re-discovered his scoring mojo, David Rainey is still a handful for opposition defenses when he comes on and Gary McCutcheon has really been much better than his goal tally, his work off the ball as well as on it is as good as anyone in the league. Last but not least with our strikers, Jordan Owens has been excellent, sure, he’s still not mastered taking his chances but he’s always getting into good positions and putting his body on the line to win the ball. He’s still scoring his headers and he’s also showing signs that he’s found his shooting boots from further out but he just needs to keep working on his reactions, composure and technique to help him put away more close range chances, especially with his feet.
There have been plenty of midfield options too, Aidan Watson has done ok, he did have a bit of a bad patch but really it's only in relation to his form last season. He's still getting the tackles in and hopefully can be back to his best for the rest of the season. With so few places available for some very good players, some players are seemingly adapting from their favoured positions to another to better slot into the current side. Matthew Snoddy is one such player who has put in great shifts when he's played and has recently impressed with a transition to what I think would have be a right sided winger sort of role. Robinson being moved into Midfield has been another experiment and though I do think he's still better as a central defender, he's certainly taken to the role and has been mightily unlucky not to have scored a couple of goals (the woodwork is not being kind!).
In defense there has been a fair bit of rotation so it's hard to really pin down what's worked best. David Gibson and BigG at right back have both given a lot when they play and have been level pegging in terms of their defensive work. Going forward though, Gareth McKeown just has more strings to his bow and can sit deeper to deliver his long-cross field balls, deep crosses, shots and long throws. So for me, he's probably added that little bit more when he has played as he doesn't need to be in the box to do damage. In the center it's been a case of musical chairs - mainly due to injuries and suspensions, personally I think David Magowan and Robinson have been our sturdiest pairing but Colin Coates (when fit) hasn't done too badly either and again offers another goal threat as well as a pretty formidable aerial defense. At left back it's been a shame we haven't seen more of Stephen McBride this season but Craig McClean just hasn't really put a foot wrong. He's been solid and with probably our stand out player of the season so far - Paul Heatley - in-front of him, he's been a great partner in crime along that wing. Paul Leeman hasn't played much but he's not looked out of place when he has. In midfield the same goes for David McMaster who has featured in a lot of games but hasn't had a huge amount of game time. In net, I haven't seen much of Wayne Drummond to really get to know his strengths and weaknesses.
In the January transfer window I'd be more than happy to see no one leave and no one else come in as I feel the squad we have has it in them to achieve whatever they put their minds to at this level if we get lucky with injuries and suspensions. The worry is we have some very talented players who might have a good chance of following Stuart Dallas across the water and to turn fully pro. Denying these guys that opportunity is silly so it's not out of the realms of possibility that it's an active transfer window but my gut feeling is it'll probably be fairly quiet.
Just before I stop writing this now essay length report. Another great game of note in the last few months was Colin Coates’ testimonial when Huddersfield Town came to play in an exhibition match at Seaview.
It was a really good night… the crowd was not very big which was a shame but for anyone who showed up it was a treat, good natured and some great goals. Plenty of highlights including Stuart Dallas showing us all how he’s progressed with some fine goals and lots of old faces on show… not only from the Crues side but as a Leeds fan also some from the Huddersfield Town side.
For as well as Jermaine Beckford and Adam Clayton there was also a cameo appearance towards the end from none other than Simon Grayson!
That was just the icing on the cake. I just wish those players and manager were still at Leeds and it had been a team in white shirts coming to play. Huddersfield were great though and really put on a good show. I used to end up watching Huddersfield Town or Rotherham games with friends who supported those clubs on the weeks when Leeds were away from home so although rivals with Leeds I still have a soft spot for those clubs. Hopefully there will be more great occasions ahead against fully pro teams from over the water. Sure, it can’t be long now until Chris Morrow’s testimonial and who knows if there might be another ‘big event’ friendly game in the pipe work, fingers crossed!
So that’s pretty much where I think we’re at right now. A solid enough start to 2012/13 with plenty still to strive for.