The Danske Bank Premiership title returned to North Belfast this season, as Crusaders came out on top of an epic battle with Coleraine which went right to the final five minutes of the league season.
David Cushley was the hero with a goal and an assist as the Crues came back from 1-0 down to defeat Ballymena United to send the red and black hordes into rapture.
With Stephen Baxter’s men now having won three titles in four years I decided to compare the current side with Roy Walkers 1995-1997 vintage, and attempt to pick a combined XI from the two eras, not an easy task with both sides littered with talent and character galore.
Starting off in goal, Brian Jensen proved himself to be an excellent addition to the squad this season, with Sean O’Neill set to miss a large period of the season due to his impending operation. With the initial contact between the parties coming through Michael Dougherty, Baxter moved quickly to sign the big Dane up. Jensen was of course a former West Brom and Burnley goalkeeper, playing Premier League football with the Clarets and becoming a fan favourite at both clubs.
‘The Beast’, as he is known, had a great season with the Crues, and his fantastic, one handed save at 1-1 on the final day in Ballymena proved pivotal, with the Crues scoring the winner soon after. O’Neill, meanwhile, worked his way back to fitness but couldn’t win back his number one shirt from the Dane. Sean is a huge character within the dressing room, and would certainly have a shout of being in many a Crues fans All Time XI, but on this occasion, the number one shirt goes to Kevin McKeown.
McKeown, much like O’Neill, was made for Crusaders. Following a short loan spell from Motherwell, McKeown was able to secure employment in Belfast, thanks to long standing sponsor Harry Corry, and went on to spend 7 trophy laden years between the sticks. McKeown was the bedrock of what became the meanest (in every sense of the word) defence in the Irish League, and he went on to win the Ulster Footballer of the Year award in 1995.
As good with his feet as he was with his hands, McKeown was the master of the ‘1 on 1’, regularly thwarting onrushing attackers when it looked like a goal was a formality. McKeown became the most decorated goalkeeper in Crusaders history, a feat only overtaken by O’Neill this season following the double triumph in the Co. Antrim Shield and the Gibson Cup.
On to the defence now, and a plethora of options from both eras, however two men stood out above all others and take their places in what would be a mouth-watering partnership.
Glenn Dunlop is the best footballer I have ever seen in the red and black shirt. Quite a statement, but Dunlop was not only a rock solid, no nonsense centre back, but a classy, elegant ball player. Dunlop could have played anywhere across the park such was his ability, and is certainly someone who could have made it across the water. Dunlop ended his career in 2000 following almost 400 games and 12 goals for the Crues.
Colin Coates has become nothing short of a Seaview icon. With the final game of the 17/18 season, Coates racked up appearance number 529 for the club, scoring 66 goals along the way while also winning every honour available to him in that time. Coates is the most decorated player in the clubs history, almost all of those as won while captain of the club. Coates is also the most capped Crusader of all time with the 6 caps he picked up between 2009-2011.
The full back positions have been taken up by two more players who aren’t only good defenders but could stride down the flanks as good as any winger, and both are blessed with one of the truest strikes you are likely to see.
Billy Joe Burns has been one of Stephen Baxters shrewdest ever signings. Signed from Linfield in the summer of 2014, Burns has gone on to become the best full back in the league. Ulster Footballer and NIFWA Footballer of the Year in 2016, Burns was once again voted into the NI Team of the Year and topped another super season off with the Goal of the Season award for a sensational strike at the National Stadium.
Trevor McMullan was a seasoned Irish League pro when he joined the Crues in the summer of 1995, spending many years at Ballymena and Larne, before short spells at Glenavon, Coleraine and Ballymena again. Roy Walker snapped up the versatile McMullan and despite his ability to play on either side, and indeed in midfield, I believe he is the pick of the left backs from the two eras.
The options for midfield were even tougher to pick from than that in defence, with no shortage of grit, guile, pace and trickery.
The centre of the park consists of two guys who can provide just about everything a midfield needs. Martin Murray was a Rolls Royce of a player, one of the most influential figures in any Irish League midfield of the time. The first of a long line of Dublin based players brought to the club in the 90’s, Marty was the best of the bunch in my opinion.
Martin is joined in the engine room by Declan Caddell. Caddell has been with the Crues for 15 years, picking up every honour available to the club in that time. Combative and industrious, Caddell would be the perfect foil for Murray in midfield.
One thing perhaps missing from the central pairing may be goals, with the duo providing around one goal every ten games between them across their careers at Seaview. However, with the four guys ahead of them, that wouldn’t be an issue.
Sid Burrows was a special player, the definition of the tricky winger; Sid left many a full back with twisted blood across two spells with the Crues, punctuated by 5 years at Linfield. Part of the side which won the Gold Cup in 1985, Sid was captain by the time Walkers side lifted the title in 1995 and is remembered as one of the greats of Irish League football.
A modern day great, Paul Heatley has lit up the league, first with Carrick before he moved to Seaview in 2012. Another player who did the Ulster & NIFWA Player of the Year double, his coming in 2015, Heatley is another who features for the NIFWA Team of the Year on an almost annual basis. His 134 goals in 260 games for the club are an incredible ratio, and have put him within touching distance of some of the great out and out strikers to pull on the red and black.
The greatest of them all, though, remains some way out of reach of Heatley. Jordan Owens smashed through the 200 goal barrier this season, having broken the long standing goal scoring record of 157 held by Glenn Hunter, back in 2016. Owens is a Hatchetman through and through, giving no less than 100% in everything he does. Breaking the 20 goal mark in 6 of the last 7 seasons, Jordan is established as one of the top strikers in the country, and a shoo-in to this Crusaders ‘Dream Team’.
A few seasons ago, I described his partner up top as the greatest Crusaders of all time. This was due to his involvement with the clubs title successes in the 90’s, relegation battles in the 2000’s and the rise of the club from those ashes to the dominant force in the Irish League.
Stephen Baxter was a top drawer centre forward, scoring goals wherever he went, but he found a home at Seaview back in the 90’s, forming a deadly partnership with Glenn Hunter that fired us to honours galore. Baxter returned towards the end of his playing career to save us from relegation in 2001, before taking the reigns as manager following an SOS call as relegation loomed again in 2005.
The story from then to now is well documented, but suffice it is to say that Baxter, along with the coaching staff and the boardroom supporting him, has reshaped the club into one that is set to be dining regularly at the top table. A move towards professionalism is next on the agenda for Baxter and the board, the next step in his Crusaders story.
It has taken since that fateful day in Ballymena until now for me to complete this task, testament to some of the players we have seen along the Shore Road across those two eras. The torture as I found I couldn’t fit Liam Dunne, Gavin Whyte, Kirk Hunter, Sean O’Neill, Glenn Hunter and more into this side.
If nothing else, I hope this will ignite some discussion and reminiscing of times gone by, plus excitement about what this squad has to offer moving forward.
GK: Kevin McKeown
RB: BJ Burns
LB: Trevor McMullan
CB: Glen Dunlop
CB: Colin Coates
RW: Paul Heatley
LW: Sid Burrows
CM: Declan Caddell
CM: Martin Murray
ST: Jordan Owens
ST: Stephen Baxter