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How Crusaders fought back from brink of extinction to rule game



Just champion: Crues boss Stephen Baxter celebrates with the league title, but it hasn’t always been so rosy for the club

Just champion: Crues boss Stephen Baxter celebrates with the league title, but it hasn’t always been so rosy for the club

Stephen Hamilton/Inpho

Ex-Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell

Ex-Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell

Key men: Crusaders celebrating the league title

Key men: Crusaders celebrating the league title

Stephen Baxter with club treasurer Tommy Whiteside and vice-chairman Mark Langhammer

Stephen Baxter with club treasurer Tommy Whiteside and vice-chairman Mark Langhammer

Just champion: Crues boss Stephen Baxter celebrates with the league title, but it hasn’t always been so rosy for the club

Crusaders have just regained the Danske Bank Premiership title and their European adventures could bring in as much as £1million, but their most dedicated followers know the Shore Road club is lucky to still be in existence.

The north Belfast side has published a five-year development strategy detailing plans to adopt a more professional set-up along with major redevelopment work at Seaview, including a new St Vincent Street stand as well as quality training facilities at Threemilewater in Newtownabbey.

But those overseeing the ambitious plans must feel they have arrived on Millionaires' Row after leaving behind their days of begging in the street.

Since Crusaders suffered relegation in 2005, the club has almost gone bust many times and their transformation into the best team in the country is a reminder to other sides that they can emerge stronger from the fiercest financial storms.

In his book 'We're Red, We're Black! A season behind the scenes in the Irish League', the club's former treasurer Mark Langhammer documents Crusaders' financial headaches - and there have been many.

Crusaders won the Irish Cup in 2009 with victory over their neighbours Cliftonville in the final, but there wasn't just a trophy on the line.

Stephen Bell, who has just stepped down as Crues chairman - making way for Ronnie Millar - offers a damning assessment of the club before Seaview was given a makeover.

"We had a pitch with a brick wall around it. It was like a prison courtyard rather than a welcoming football stadium," said Bell, whose first game as chairman was that 2009 Irish Cup final victory.

"We have listened to supporters and moved us into the real world with proper facilities.

"We had massive VAT bills, bills everywhere and the BOND scheme set up by Mark (Langhammer) and Tommy (Whiteside) helped pay off our debts.

"The Irish Cup success in 2009 kickstarted everything.

"Money earned now goes back into the ground and the team whereas before it went to pay off debts.

"Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson probably did us the biggest favour ever. We had promised the Inland Revenue money and after we won the Irish Cup semi-final in 2009 it was a weight lifted off our shoulders.

"We could pay them for another month and after the final I needed to give money to the HMRC.

"When it came to handing out the cheques at the end of the game, Patrick thought it was embarrassing because there wasn't a cheque for us but I just said hand me the envelope and I was honest with people. It was surreal but we had to live that way - at that time it was simply about survival from week to week.

"With all the success we have enjoyed since, I'm maybe not a good chairman, but I'm certainly a lucky one."

Crusaders' relegation from the top flight in 2005 sparked serious concerns as the club faced a mountain of debt.

Langhammer, in his book, stated: "The jury was out on whether the club could, or even deserved, to exist."

At that bleak moment in the club's history, he refers to Crusaders as "tired, run down and technically bankrupt".

As financial indiscipline threatened the club's existence, Langhammer joined a Stadium Working Group in 2007 and at the height of the property boom the plan was to sell the Shore Road ground and find a new home.

He stated: "The club was over £800,000 in debt and at the limits of our borrowings with the bank who did not regard us as a good or reliable creditor. They were not wrong and other smaller creditors were at the gate getting ever more restless."

Following relegation, safety and ground improvements required £50,000 investment but Langhammer, who is now the club's vice-chairman, admitted: "We were heading for oblivion."

In 2011, with the club spending more than it could afford, there appeared to be little light at the end of the tunnel with several options on the table, including a creditors' voluntary agreement or administration.

Langhammer recalled: "The main dangers facing directors were wrongful trading and the subsequent threat of disqualification. Wrongful trading occurs where there is no reasonable prospect of avoiding liquidation. Crusaders FC were close to that stage."

He added: "The real crunch came in the spring and summer of 2011 when a demand to pay £167,000 from HMRC threatened the existence of the club... we begged and borrowed, sold off some telephone mast rights and went to our members and fans to beg for more bond money. In the end, we got there."

Just to rub salt into their wounds, the club had to settle a financial dispute with the contractor who laid the 4G artificial surface in 2009.

Langhammer noted: "In the end, a pitch which was funded at around £210,000 cost well north of double that."

And he reflected: "It is fair to say that without the contribution of over 40 bond holders as well as some collective bond holders such as supporters' clubs, there would be no Crusaders FC today. You all know who you are. I can only say your contributions were, for our club at the nadir of its fortunes, heroic."

Crues treasurer Tommy Whiteside admitted he nearly fainted when he discovered the depth of the financial woes.

"We were relegated in 2005 but that wasn't the worst period in my eyes," he argued. "That was 2009 to 2011. The finances and pressure at that time was unbelievable. I can remember the Irish Cup semi-final in 2009 at Mourneview Park. If we hadn't won that game, I think we were gone.

"It gave us cash flow to keep running and a European spot. Looking back, I don't honestly know how we survived.

"Over the years we built up a tax bill of £300,000. When I got involved in 2006 or 2007, I went to see Robert White, the former treasurer. I don't know how he kept his finger in the dyke. We needed a letter showing we could keep paying the taxman and we went to see a girl in Olive Tree House in Belfast not knowing what the tax debt was.

"I asked the girl, 'What is it we actually owe?' I nearly fainted when she told me… it was £300,000. That had to be added to other debts that were coming out of our ears. It was horrendous.

"We went into a crisis mode and there was a chance we could sell the ground for £4.5million in 2006. We thought, 'Let's clear our debts and invest in a new stadium', but the property crash came.

"Our manager Stephen Baxter is the cornerstone for everything and the money in our local game now comes from Europe. Everything has to be geared towards that. Clubs in other countries have turned professional on the basis of that European money and some of them are making the group stages."

The Crusaders story is a real rags to riches one.

And there's the added irony that their closest title rivals this season, Coleraine, are also fortunate to still be afloat after facing crippling debts in 2003.

It's managers and players who win titles and Irish Cups but the Crusaders and Coleraine supporters who dug deep in those hard times have earned some of that champagne too.

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