OTT this week caught up with former Crusaders midfielder Chris Morrow to talk about his career so far, becoming a fans favourite at Seaview, and what’s next for the man known throughout the league as ‘Beaver’.
The 2002/2003 season was a difficult one for Crusaders, with the club fighting against relegation for the third season in succession. Top flight status was only secured on the penultimate day of the season, thanks to a combination of a 0-0 home draw with Ards, and rivals Newry Town (as they were then) going down 3-2 at Mourneview Park. This set of results meant the Hatchetmen finished the season in 11th place, avoiding a relegation playoff due to the impending expansion of the Irish League to 16 teams.
However, there were also a number of highlights throughout the season for Alan Dornan’s men, and a number of reasons for optimism within the Crues faithful. The early period of the campaign saw the return to the club of one of their favourite sons, Gavin Arthur. A little later on we saw the emergence of one of the best modern-day left backs in the country, and a man who would go on to make over 400 appearances for the club, Stephen McBride. Young talent such as Conall Murtagh, Paul Dickson and Ross Handford were making their first steps in football, while after Christmas we saw the loan arrival of a pair of young Shelbourne strikers in Alan Murphy and Gerard Rowe, two lads who made a big impact in their time with the club. Notably a memorable strike from Murphy in a 2-0 home win over Glenavon, and an incredible overhead kick from ‘Buzzer’ Rowe in a 1-0 win at Solitude.
Go a bit further back though; back to late October and a fairly low key County Antrim Shield tie at home to lowly Chimney Corner. The big pre-game talking point in my regular haunt at Speakers Corner was the inclusion in the starting line-up of a scrawny young defender by the name of Colin Coates, and one of the top scoring Reserve team players getting a first-team jersey for the first time with Chris Morrow given the number 15 shirt.
“I signed for Crusaders under-16s under managers Joe McCann & Charlie Hampson on the same night as Colin Coates”, Chris commented. “We had a very strong squad and we won the Millennium Cup at Seaview beating Oliver Plunkett 2-0. At under-16 level I was lucky enough to feature in a few under-18 games concluding in a reserve game under manager Stephen Mouncey. By the next season, Coatesy and I didn’t feature that often for the under-18s, who by now were managed by ex-Crusaders kitman Leslie McKitterick, as we had progressed past the reserves and into the first team squad. My debut came on a Tuesday night at home to Chimney Corner in the County Antrim shield, I can’t remember much of the game but can certainly remember me and Colin Coates despatching a penalty each but unfortunately losing out on penalties that night.”
Sure enough, just a few weeks after his 18th birthday, Morrow would be introduced to the action after an hour, replacing fellow debutant Paul Dickson in midfield. The game did not go the way the home fans expected, however, with Corner holding their own throughout and taking the game to a penalty shoot-out. Up stepped the youngsters though, who belied their tender years and both Coates and Morrow slotted home their spot kicks in what would be an eventual Shield exit for the home side.
Although Chris would make another ten appearances that season, his full debut would not come for almost a full calendar year, in a 1-1 draw at Ballymena. His first goal came a matter of weeks later in a 3-2 win at Limavady, putting the Crues into a 2-0 half time lead after a mistake from Limavady full back John Neill. As the season progressed, Chris, now known by all and sundry as Beaver, made himself an indispensable part of the squad. By the end of the season, Morrow’s promise was recognized when he became only the third Crusaders player to be awarded the Ulster Young Footballer of the Year, following on from Laurie Todd in 1973 and Ciaran Donaghy in 2000.
“I have said before that I will always be thankful to Alan Dornan for giving me the chance at such a young age and thankfully it was the start of the career I’ve had to date. Winning Young Footballer of The Year came as quite a shock to me. I featured in 18 games I think over the course of that season and wasn’t expecting to be in a position to even be nominated. I guess people had actually taken notice of my game which was a real honour.”
This progress continued apace the following season, and Morrow’s name was now one of the first on the team sheet. The league campaign would be a struggle however, and the Hatchetmen picked up only two wins in the first 19 league games. The sequence led to the dismissal of Dornan, and the appointment of Stephen Baxter, an appointment that would change the club entirely. The season ended with the doom and gloom of relegation after a playoff defeat to Glenavon, but the work started in earnest that summer, as Baxter set about rebuilding from top to bottom. McBride, Magowan, Coates and Morrow were identified by Baxter as the young players to build the club around and between them; they would go on to win everything available to the club in the coming years.
After many years scrapping for every point, Baxter had a young, exciting attacking side, beating everything in their path around many grounds which were brand new to fans and players alike. Silverware arrived, with the First Division championship capping off the earlier Steel and Sons and Intermediate League Cup wins and returning to our rightful home in the top flight of local football.
“Stephen came in towards the end of the 2005 season with around nine games left but I believe the damage had already been done. But, Stephen being Stephen I know he had already planned ahead for the inevitable happening and how we would return to the Premiership. I remember the call I received from Stephen when players where being asked how they felt about signing to play in the First Division, which back then was considered Intermediate football. I made it clear to Stephen that I was part of the team that was relegated and that I wanted to be part of the team that was promoted, so there was no chance of me going anywhere. The 05/06 season in the First Division was a very enjoyable season for many reasons. Getting back a winning mentality for one and of course, picking up three winners medals along the way.”
The club continued to grow, and progressed to the upper reaches of the league, while Morrow’s personal development would see him come very close to being named in the 2007/2008 Irish League Team of the Season, just missing out to Barry Johnston and Michael Gault. One scribe at the time was fulsome in his praise of the Shore Road man; “The team would need some flair and guile (in midfield) and in Chris Morrow, the Crues possess one of the most naturally and technically gifted players in the league. Skilful, both footed, deceptively quick and with a vast array of passing, Morrow has also won the Young Player of the Year award in the past.”
Join us again on Thursday, when we talk to Chris about his short-lived goalkeeping career, the pinnacle of his playing days, and how he has no plans to hang the boots up just yet.