Present big beasts of the local game ‘The Crues’ have travelled a bit of a journey in my time on this earth. Always the self- styled ‘little working – class club from the Shore Road’ they have very much grown in all sorts of ways but I would argue they still have that very tight link with the local community. Are they the Manchester City of the Premiership? I would say no as they have not had an influx of ‘new’ money, but through proper budgeting, planning and considered space allowed by their support they have achieved a sustainable and organic growth that sees them set to reign under Stephen Baxter’s stewardship. The local MCFC could well turn out to be Larne.
As I started to watch the local game in ‘77 I was conscious of their two league wins earlier that decade in 1973 and 1976 and their concurrent Cup wins in 1967/8 so to me they were a major enough club. Names like Liam Beckett, Walter McFarland, Roy McDonald and Jackies Fullerton and Hutton emanated up over the wall and onto the motorway. Their European Cup tie with Liverpool in September ‘76 caught the local sporting imagination and there are famous photos of the ground splitting stitches with people hanging onto to all sorts of structure to see Liverpool on their way to their first European Cup win. Whilst heavily defeated at home they were generously acclaimed by the Kop in the return leg for a gutsy performance albeit in a 2-0 defeat.
From my first visit to the present day Seaview probably is the perfect Irish League ground for what it does. Great name too as to the uninitiated it suggests an idyllic type view – all blue sky, ice cream and seagulls. The odd seagull perhaps but the name clearly has Alistair Campbell all over it as it is very much iron, concrete, railways, motorways and an industrial hinterland as a backdrop. The fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Proximity to the pitch, perfect size and capable of providing atmosphere and community ambience it has it all. The balls hitting the Shore Road double deckers going past is proper local quirk for good measure. With a bit of effort you would not be far off being able to touch the ball hitting the net at that end without arousing a steward’s inquiry. You need rhino hide to be a goalkeeper down there.
Talking of things tough they very much revel in their nickname of the Hatchetmen. More than any other side they consistently have always had a physically tough tungsten core to their teams over the years. This moniker runs closely and visually with King Richard’s late twelfth century Crusaders in many ways. I like the idea of King Richard bellowing “Come on the Crues” as he decapitates some infidel. For flags and banners Crusaders fans know they are blessed. Their black and red strip in whatever format is hugely identifiable with the club. The present strip with its off centre cross for me is their best strip yet for the reasons mentioned. Where many clubs have dubious and weak links to their nicknames this is so good.
One particular Ulster habit is wearing your religion on your sleeve and this has been about the club since player – manager Roy Walker joined the club in 1989 and has been carried through to this day with present personnel. Indeed a local BBC programme about the club last year made a point of highlighting this aspect. In itself this really is neither here nor there, but what is amusing is rival fans united in outrage when they decide that this tackle or that piece of behaviour is about as far from heaven as it gets. That as well, is another epic piece of local culture too.
But back to the ‘Crues’ …..phonetically the same as blues. My mother who wouldn’t know dixie about local football always had a thing about local commentators’ pronunciation of the team. This was probably pertinent to her rural ear, but she never could get her head round the fact that people said Crusaders in this way, as against the way ‘Cru’ is pronounced in crustacean. She used to screw her face up and put as much ‘Croooo’ into the word in mockery of the correspondent. I can still see it as Stephen Baxter comes on the TV once more. Still not sure which way is right actually.
Roy Walker was a key signing in 1989 as player – manager. In the nineties he created two Championship winning sides in ‘95 and ‘97 with the spine of all – time team spines in Kevin McKeown, Glenn Dunlop, Kirk Hunter, Stephen Baxter and fireman Glenn Hunter. Ten years later unbelievably relegation followed and the club looked to the ex target man for divine intervention and they got it in all the ways you can get. To this day and the future, I am sure that appointing Stephen Baxter as manager will be the best decision the club has ever made.
As I mentioned earlier the present club of trophies, good crowds and teams is hewn out of organic, planned and sustained growth on and off the pitch. The club always had good administrators in Derek Wade and Jim Semple who were perhaps known as great Irish League men well beyond their club. The sponsorship of Harry Corry shouldn’t be overlooked either. But for a good decade now the club has won Irish Leagues, Cups, Shields and also a Setanta and are now regular remainers in Europe. This has allowed funding of serious quality squads who still and should be major there or thereabouts merchants.
Colin Coates and Baxter in time will probably have stands and function rooms named after them and rightly so. Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte have provided the most exciting wing play seen locally for some time and Whyte surely will follow ex Crue Stuart Dallas to England. Local scribe and Crues fan Stephen Looney will not have better days to write about them than the present. Carl Frampton doubles well as local boxer and huge fan and ambassador for the club. Their 4G pitch rankles many, but like most football rankles, it is only an issue in defeat and you can get plenty of them if you visit Seaview. Now folks, which end do you want, Heaven or Hell?