Belfast Telegraph

True believers: how Crusaders became the 'God Squad' of Irish League football

 

By Robert Jones

They are the three Cs of Northern Ireland football... Crusaders, Christianity and community. All three feature strongly in a BBC NI documentary set to be screened on Monday night, coincidentally just after Crusaders face Linfield in the Danske Bank Premiership.

The 'True North' film is a fly on the wall look at the Crues bid last season to secure an historic three-in-a-row League title success.

With faith at its core, its home in a working class area of north Belfast, Crusaders have fought to overcome adversity more than most. A decade ago they were on the brink of bankruptcy and relegated.

Given exclusive access to the changing room, fans and players, Monday's documentary, entitled Crusaders - Keeping The Faith, gives audiences an unprecedented insight into the club during the 2016-2017 season.

It also examines the heritage of a club, labelled the 'God Squad' due to the Christian make-up of its team.

Former striker and now manager for nearly 12 years, Stephen Baxter speaks candidly as cameras follow him and his team as they embark on a new season - with a nail-biting last day finale - that could see them secure a momentous third Premier League title in a row.

Baxter highlights the importance of the club to the local community, and its importance to the club: "On those roads with the terraced houses there is a family of people whose community is in Crusaders Football Club. And the warmth of the people for me is, they would give you their last."

The programme, made by Natalie Maynes and Thomas Niblock who produced the acclaimed Crossmaglen: Field of Dreams documentary, combines the action on the pitch with a no-holds-barred view of the club off the pitch.

Crues keeper Sean O'Neill tells of his unusual pathway into the Irish League. From the Falls Road, Gaelic football was Sean's first love and he still trains at the GAA club he joined when he was six-years old.

Sean says: "My family was Gaelic, Gaelic, Gaelic. There was no soccer. Soccer was called the foreign sport. Catholic. Protestant. Everyone's human at the end of the day - everyone's the same. You come to Crusaders and you're able to play football and put the ball in the back of the net - that's much more important."

Viewers also get to witness the journey back to fitness for injured players and the frustrations of being on the outside, unable to break back into the first team. And there are candid accounts of the unseen pressures, demands and distractions that can blight young players and how they deal with matters away from the dressing room.

It would be impossible to make a programme about Crusaders and not explore the Christian ethos at the club. When Stephen Baxter was scoring goals and securing two league titles in the 1990s, the Christian faith was a central part of the team.

Baxter says: "I became a Christian when I was 19. Years later when I was coming to play football for Crusaders, there were 12 Christians at the club. So we got labelled the 'God Squad' because we went on this great run. A football environment wasn't seen as a Christian environment and that myth I felt was blown away at that moment."

Crusaders are still known for their Christian ethos. A quarter of the dressing room have connections with the Evangelical churches dotted around north Belfast and the programme hears from current players Howard Beverland and Matthew Snoddy about how they balance their faith and their football.

After the glory days of the 1990s, Crusaders faced darker times with relegation and the threat of bankruptcy. The programme hears how the club managed to avoid financial meltdown and prosper by turning to its loyal fan base who dipped into their own pockets to help pay off the club's debts.

During the 2016/17 season, the club repays the last of those loyal fans including one who handed over his £500 life savings to his beloved club - with no guarantee at the time of ever seeing it again.

Back on the pitch, there's plenty of action as the team goes on an unbeaten run and tops the table. But a healthy lead can disappear. Viewers get to see what goes on behind the scenes in the changing room as emotions run high. There are local derbies, top of the table clashes and a dramatic last day with that historic treble still a possibility.

True North: Crusaders - Keeping The Faith is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday at 10.40pm.

Belfast Telegraph

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