Belfast Telegraph

Only a hat-trick of titles could better this says proud Coates

By Steven Beacom

Colin Coates has described this season's league championship success for Crusaders even more satisfying than the last one.

And the outstanding Crues skipper insists making it three titles in a row would be better again.

The 30-year-old Seaview stalwart and his team-mates will make history at the Shore Road ground after tomorrow's Danske Bank Premiership clash with Coleraine when they pick up Irish League winners medals and the Gibson Cup for the second season in succession.


No previous Crusaders side has achieved that impressive feat, with Stephen Baxter's men retaining their crown on Tuesday night thanks to a comprehensive 3-1 victory over Cliftonville at Solitude.

The Crues players enjoyed the moment, though for Coates it was a relatively early night as he had the school run to do the next morning.

Expect the celebrations to be ramped up over the weekend to mark the historic achievement.

"After winning the title last season, there was more expectation on us to do well this season," said Coates, who in his 14 years with the club has seen good times and bad.

"There has been constant pressure added to the fact that everyone was more desperate than ever to beat us because we were champions.

"We played pretty well at the start of the season but after Christmas, to be honest, it has been a bit of a grind. Defensively we have been strong and boys like Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens have scored key goals.

"This title feels more satisfying because we have retained it which no Crusaders side has ever managed to do. I remember talking to our old team-mate Paul Leeman about how hard it is to retain a title. He was in that great Glentoran side in the '90s and they never did it so for us to win back to back championships is an achievement to be proud about.

"Also this season we have had a lot of criticism about our style of play, us being a physical side, our pitch and opponents demanding strong referees before games. We have come through all that, shut those people out and proved we are the best side in the Irish League."

Coates points to the ambition and managerial style of Stephen Baxter as well as belief, will to win and an unbreakable spirit among the players as the driving forces for glory.

He adds: "We think we have good players here too. It has been a real squad effort. You don't win league titles with just 11 or 12 players now, or even 14 or 15. Everyone has to pull together. I know players like Gavin Whyte, Richard Clarke, Andrew Mitchell and Diarmund O'Carroll haven't played as much as they would have liked this season but they have all contributed to the success along with others who have played more regularly.

"We led the title race for a long time but when we lost to Carrick Rangers in March there were a few questions asked but we have finished the season strongly winning big games and scoring a lot of late goals. When Linfield were dominating Irish League football they did that. It is a sign of a good side."

One of those late goals came from captain fantastic himself, scoring in stoppage time at Ballinamallard to earn the Crues a vital 1-0 win one week after the Carrick defeat, just when Linfield looked to be chasing them down.

"Looking back now that goal played a significant part as it kept a gap between us and Linfield. I have scored only two this season but would rank that as important as any goal I have scored for Crusaders," said Coates who refuses to consider himself a club legend, though there is no doubt he has become an iconic figure at Seaview and there are few, if any, more influential players in the Irish League.

"I'm 30 now and am proud to captain Crusaders. As a player in the Irish League I have reached the top of the mountain and now it is all about trying to stay there.

"During my time at Crusaders I have had chances to go to other clubs, but I wanted to stay and achieve things and thankfully it has worked out.

"Now our objective has to be to win three in a row. When the new season begins we will come back stronger and hungrier. We'll need to because winning another title will be harder again. I think David Healy is doing an excellent job at Linfield and they will be up there. Cliftonville will be ready for the challenge and Glenavon are improving all the time. We can think about that though when it comes around. We want to enjoy this title success first.

"Last year lifting the Gibson Cup was surreal. It was an incredible experience but on Saturday I think we will be ready for it and know what to expect. We will take more photographs with our family and soak up the occasion a lot more," added Coates whose children Zach (10), Rowan (6) and Clara (2) will be in attendance.

As well as savouring Saturday, there is Champions League football to look forward to. The Crues will enter the competition in the second qualifying round in July. Win three ties and the Seaview men would make the group stages. Is that a possibility?

"Our aim is always to try and get through a round and take it from there," said Coates.

"The dream scenario would be to go all the way and reach the Champions League group stages but that is a huge ask because we are only part-time players.

"I think until players here put in more time on the training ground it isn't a realistic aim, but that won't stop us trying our very best every time we play in the competition. I am very proud of the Irish League and in Europe I see us as representatives of the League and the country."

Belfast Telegraph


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