THE LATER CRUSADER: A latecomer to local football

Martin aged fifty is a very recently joined Irish League fan. Working close to the Shore Road, though not from the area, he has chosen to follow Crusaders. I thought this would be a worthwhile interview to do following the recent one with John who started in the ‘forties’ and has just about come to the end of live football.

HM: So Martin – tell me your interest in football and from what age? Any teams you played for and interest in sport in general?

MARTIN: “According to my Mum it started when I was about three. Anytime football came on TV all I could shout about was George Best. This would have been about 1970. For my fourth birthday I received a George Best red football kit. Have a photo of it somewhere. I have always loved football and no other sports were considered. I played for a few school teams and in my early teens played for Holywood Star. In my early teens I attended quite a few home internationals at Windsor Park and got to see my idol, Peter Barnes, who played for Man City and England. That was back in the day when most of the Northern Ireland team played for top teams in the then First Division, now called the Premiership. It was always special to see these players. The players that one only saw on TV at the weekends, in Shoot magazine and on football cards.”

HM: Man City are your team. Tell me about early and later visits….. visits when they were grim to nowadays.

MARTIN: “A few things happened around the same period which started my love of all things Manchester City. My friend’s big brother’s bedroom was a shrine to City. Dennis Tueart’s overhead kick which was shown on the opening credits of ‘The Big Match’ was a big thing and Nationwide (forerunner to The One Show) did a season long feature covering the ups and downs of a football club – Man City. It was not until the mid – eighties that I got to Maine Road in the old second Division where they were playing the likes of Oldham Athletic and Plymouth Argyle. I remember the club shop which was like a prefab mobile hut unlike the club shop of today which is more like a Tesco’s. The atmosphere at Maine Road was electric- so very different to today, but that’s another topic to tackle another time.”

HM: Tell me about visits to Sheffield and matches with your son Joseph.

MARTIN: “My sister lives in Sheffield. Her husband and son support Sheffield United so when visiting we always catch a game. Once I was in the away end when they played Manchester City. On leaving the game after City had lost 1-0, the City fans assumed I was a Blade when I left the ground and walked away from the angry Blues supporters. I got dog’s abuse but they were unaware that my City shirt was below my coat. My son Joseph is a loyal City fan but like me has a soft spot for Sheffield United. On our last visit to Sheffield, my brother in law took Joseph to see Sheffield FC who play in the Northern Premier League. I reckon this is where Joseph’s attraction to local football started. Everything is the opposite to the Premier League. Ground size, crowd size, cost of entrance. I could go on.

Some other noticeable differences for example – The small stands had rows five deep. You can hear every word, good and bad spoken by everyone both on and off the pitch. Every home supporter seemed to know everybody else by their first name. During the match the ball was often kicked out of the ground into the Tesco car park. Ten minutes later it would come back and two balls were on the pitch at the same time which seemed to amuse everyone. The players were so close to the fans you could smell their Lynx Africa as they ran past and you could hear all the manager’s instructions and colourful words said in disagreement with the ref.”

HM: So tell me about your perception of the local league here and how your first visit to Crusaders came about.

MARTIN. “For a long time I have always wanted to go to an Irish League game but was never really attracted to any club in particular. To be honest as well, I was apprehensive as my view was that it may not be safe, since over the years the press seemed very happy to show violence at football matches but very little coverage of the games themselves. The football rivalry seemed to be very strong here and alongside the usual sectarian stuff that goes on and off I just kept postponing it. I must say that this was my own view based on never having been to a local game. I was afraid of being caught up in trouble although the closest I have ever come to being attacked was by Man City fans leaving Bramall Lane.

Last year Joseph’s team got to the final of an Under 15 final which was played at Seaview. It was a great day and I just got a good feeling about everything associated with the football club. Everyone connected to the club that day was so nice, very helpful and welcoming. It was then that Joseph and I decided that we would start attending Irish League games and that Crusaders would have the pleasure of our company. Mark (at work) had offered to take me to Windsor to see Linfield but it just never happened for one reason or another so it was time to start.”

HM. What do you like about it, what surprised you and how would you describe it to others?

MARTIN. “I love watching live football anyway but never thought I would love it as much as I do. Superb atmosphere, honest football, players who really play for the shirt and not out for financial gain. The fact that it’s on our doorstep makes it a shame that it’s not a bigger draw for football fans. Whenever we are at the airport going to Manchester for a City game it always amazes me the amount of supporters from here going to matches in England and Scotland. I know why they go to see Premiership games with all the glamour etc…but wonder do they go to local games in between trips to England.”

HM: Thoughts on Crusaders players, manager, club generally. Early days I know but thoughts on other clubs, away grounds if any?

MARTIN. “No away grounds yet but that will happen soon. The fact that we know all the players’ characteristics definitely builds your loyalty towards them. Boy do they get stuck in. The manager has been in football a long time and his love of local football is not in question. His passion for the game and Crusaders Football Club is infectious. As I said before, easy to travel to and from the ground, local guys playing top football for the love of it and even the tea is nice. What is there not to like?

Over the years all my football hats and scarves have been Sky Blue. I have just purchased a red and black woolly hat. Never thought that would ever happen.”

HM. Thanks Martin.

Seems to me perhaps it is not such a jump after all for Martin bearing in mind Crusaders’ red and black has been City’s away colours for years. Only a couple of months into his new found pastime he now has an entourage of four others who have joined him on this new Saturday quest.

What strikes me is the stripped back simplicity and ‘honest to goodness’ that Martin not only sees in the local game, but also that he has been able to communicate this to others in and around his family who now accompany him. Significant as well I feel is the pleasure that he found in the game all those years ago in front of a black and white TV over George Best is now apparent again albeit in a new format. Also, despite the trips to England and fed a diet of highly produced TV fare he now has it in front of him on his own terms.

The game may have metamorphosed hugely in his fifty years, both in his personal consumption of it and of course in the journey it has itself travelled, but I find listening to him talk about his new activity nails the absolute essence of the game then and now. There is nothing quite like having your own local team to watch live, wherever it is in the world. That is something the game should always remember too.