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Wheels come off as Crusaders hit slump in Irish League

Billy Weir


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Seeing red: Crusaders keeper Ger Doherty is sent off by referee Andrew Davey

Seeing red: Crusaders keeper Ger Doherty is sent off by referee Andrew Davey

Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter

Lucky 13: Larne’s small band of men at Windsor Park back in 2008

Lucky 13: Larne’s small band of men at Windsor Park back in 2008

Seeing red: Crusaders keeper Ger Doherty is sent off by referee Andrew Davey

Back on January 25, Crusaders got the better of Ballymena United at Seaview to go top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.

They were just a point ahead of Linfield, who had two games in hand, but with one of those against the Blues at Windsor Park, the fight to regain the title was still very much in their hands.

They also had the BetMcLean League Cup final to look forward to and, a week after beating Ballymena, swatted Carrick Rangers aside to book a quarter-final berth in the Sadler's Peaky Blinder Irish Cup at Glentoran.

I think it would be fair to say that the wheels have well and truly come off since that win at Taylors Avenue.

No wins now in five games, a final defeat by Coleraine, a complete thrashing handed out by David Healy's men and Saturday's extraordinary scenes at The Oval, where they tumbled out of the Irish Cup.

Like against Coleraine, Stephen Baxter and his side felt wronged by a refereeing decision - or, in Saturday's case, a decision by the fourth official - but there was absolutely no excuse for some of the crazy antics that overshadowed the match.

Jordan Forsythe's frustrations at the cheeky antics of a ballboy by pushing him earned him a red card, and another rap on the knuckles is bound to follow from the IFA.

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Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter

What they'll do to Ger Doherty is anyone's guess. If you haven't seen it, after the final whistle some cretinous halfwit of a Glentoran 'supporter' decided to throw a bottle at the Crusaders' keeper.

The sensible option at this point would have been to keep a cool head, lift the aforementioned missile, hand it to the referee and walk off with dignity intact and moral high ground attained.

He didn't though, and easier said than done. He hurled the bottle back like Fatima Whitebread in a bit of a mood, and now the IFA is likely to throw the book at him.

It seems to be a theme in this year's competition, keepers doing scarcely believable things, following Warrenpoint Town's Mark Byrne's ill-judged decision to get involved in a fracas with Ballymena United supporters in the last round.

He has put his (goalkeeping) gloves on for the last time this season and, with just eight games left of this season, Doherty may be joining him on the sidelines for most of that time.

To his credit, Doherty has held his hands up in the correct manner.

Speaking to the Derry Journal on Monday, the former Derry City shotstopper admitted that his reaction was wrong but he had been reacting to abuse from the terraces.

"My reaction was completely unprofessional," he said. "I have experienced plenty in football before and should have been big and bad enough to take it on the chin.

Five games without a win is something of a crisis in the recent history of Crusaders, but the real danger of missing out on Europe and its cash bonanza is a real worry for those behind the scenes at Seaview

"However, the verbal abuse that you are sadly forced to get used to is not right. It was just frustration at the end. The abuse is bad enough but once they started throwing things on at me, I thought it was out of order and I reacted.

"However I feel it over steps the mark a bit when it turns into sectarian shouts or stuff like where you are from. I can't see the sense in that. These guys probably don't even realise that they have signed a couple of players who live a few streets away from me, and I told them that when we played them at Seaview.

"I wasn't happy with some of the shouts, and whenever the bottles started coming in, it was a bad reaction from me and one for which I unreservedly apologise.

"It's not on, I know that, but I felt that I had been pushed to my limit."

It is admirable that he has apologised. Whether or not the abuse was sectarian remains to be seen. If it was, there is no place for it in the game, but this is Northern Ireland and anyone who thinks that it doesn't still lurk very close to the surface is naive in the extreme.

It is certainly something that is much better than not so long ago and, hand on heart, is not something I have heard being hurled at any game I have been at for years.

Yes, there is still abuse, a lot of it way over the top, but more the meanderings of a moron than sectarian or racist bile.

Northern Ireland's fall down the ratings meant we lost one of those coveted Europa League spots, so the only avenues to the continent were for the league champions and runners-up, plus the Irish Cup winners

Stephen Baxter was also dismissed on Saturday, meaning he had to watch from the stands as the Crues and Cliftonville all but snuffed out any smouldering hopes of igniting a title charge after a scoreless north Belfast derby.

Last season, when Baxter saw his side couldn't catch Linfield or, talking of teams in complete freefall, Ballymena in second, he lobbed all his eggs into the Irish Cup basket in an effort to secure a crucial European spot.

That avenue is now gone, and Coleraine's win on Tuesday night over Glenavon means they now have a six-point lead over Crusaders and Cliftonville, with Glentoran two points better off than both of them too.

Five games without a win is something of a crisis in the recent history of Crusaders, but the real danger of missing out on Europe and its cash bonanza is a real worry for those behind the scenes at Seaview.

This is the second season of the club going 'semi-professional', and a big part of their ambitious five-year plan laid out in 2018 rested on the crock of gold at the end of the Uefa rainbow.

Northern Ireland's fall down the ratings meant we lost one of those coveted Europa League spots, so the only avenues to the continent were for the league champions and runners-up, plus the Irish Cup winners.

It will be a huge ask to do that now, and it could have a knock-on effect on how Crusaders progress with the second half of their plans.

They are a canny bunch though, and have a lot of good people working behind the scenes to make the club a community hub, and that had already been a great success.

Indeed, given some of the fairytale stuff that Baxter has been able to magic up over the years, they could go a fantastic run to the end of the season, pick up eight wins and who knows where that could take them?

Next up are home games against Institute and Glentoran - that one could be quite feisty - and an away trip to Carrick before the final five games in the post-split matches and, like a wounded tiger, you would expect Baxter's side, as they have done down the years, to come out fighting.

Anyhow, the final word, unusually, goes to the officials from Saturday's game.

Andrew Davey, who originally, along with his assistant, awarded a corner when Jarlath O'Rourke blocked Robbie McDaid's cross with his hand, admitted his mind was changed by fourth official Raymond Crangle.

Now this is probably the most shocking thing to come out of Saturday for those of us who thought that the fourth official may as well be painted onto the pitch for all that they seem to do.

It is certainly one of the few times I have witnessed them do anything other than usher on the subs and hold the wee board up to tell us how much injury-time there is at the end of the half.

For me, they got the decision right, and that should be the beginning and end of it, and fair play to them for coming out and explaining the reason for their decision.

It showed a lot of bottle. Oh, hang on, perhaps not...

Changing times but no happy ending at Field of Dreams

On a rare moment of downtime in the office on Tuesday evening I was having a bit of a rummage. No, not there.

I was looking for a photograph of Windsor Park to go with a story when I stumbled across a picture from 2008 of Linfield playing Larne.

It showed a rather sparsely-populated South Stand and had the caption 'the Larne playing staff outnumbered their supporters today with only 13 turning up to watch the game.'

How times have changed.

Friday night's Irish Cup cracker with Coleraine was played at another jam-packed Inver Park, and while I don't know the exact attendance figure, it must have been around the 1,400 mark.

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Lucky 13: Larne’s small band of men at Windsor Park back in 2008

Lucky 13: Larne’s small band of men at Windsor Park back in 2008

Lucky 13: Larne’s small band of men at Windsor Park back in 2008

My admiration of the rebirth of the club has been well-documented on this page previously, but the way they go about things puts other clubs to shame. The pre-match build-up to the clash with Coleraine with marketing campaigns and brilliant social media productions has to be the way forward for the game to thrive in Northern Ireland.

Too many clubs over the years have been happy with the 'sure, they've got a roof over their heads, what else do they want?' approach but, as Kevin Costner might have said if he'd lived in Craigyhill, if you build it, they will come.

And they have been, in considerable numbers, all season and, always looking to move on and evolve, this Saturday's game with Glenavon will kick off at 5.30pm.

They tried this earlier in the season against Glentoran and, at that stage, pulled in their biggest attendance of the season, and anything that tries to drive the game forward is to be lauded.

Let's hope that there is space for the 13 brave souls who made the trip to Windsor Park all those years ago.

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