Date: 7th July 2015
AT the turn of the 21st Century, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest and most successful clubs were very nearly bankrupt.
The fiercely proud working-class side situated in the north of Belfast for over a century was in serious danger of disappearing altogether, due to a range of financial issues.
Luckily, the progressive board realised that there was a way to save their beloved club – the community.
They introduced a new board set-up and more constitutional values to the club and cut costs significantly thanks to a raft of volunteers taking up normally paid positions. The club is now owned by fans, and run by fans.
Their commitment to community ethics saw the side became the first team in the Irish League to install a 4G artificial pitch, which was endorsed by UEFA.
This ensured that the ground could be used for a range of community activities throughout the week, rather than just every other Saturday. It also in turn led to the Crusaders agreeing a ground share with local rivals Newington F.C, again saving costs given the price of upkeep was shared.
And having been on the brink of liquidation, the club have now returned to the top of the Northern Irish game, winning the league last year which has in turn brought Champions League football back to their Seaview Stadium.
Mark Langhammer, a former player of the Crues and now a director, revealed at this year’s European Football Congress that not only did community values save the club financially, they are also shaping how the club is now progressing socially.
He also told of the significant difficulties that people growing up in the north of Belfast face, not least the political and religious problems which still hamper the city to this day.
The Crusaders have had a difficult past, not least a very black day when on the 12th January 1980, RUC constable David Purse was shot dead by an IRA gunman during a match at the Seaview with Portadown.
They also hold the unenviable record of the highest police presence at any game in Britain, when on the 21st of August 1979 there were more than 1,900 police officers present for a match between themselves and Cliftonville. Police actually outnumbered the fans.
But the club is confident that its new community direction can at least help to bridge some of the divides in the capital, as well as help those in most need in areas surrounding the club.
This is most evident in their latest project ‘Seaview Enterprises’, a not-for-profit social enterprise whose main aim is to improve the lives of young disadvantaged youths in the area.
Religion is still one of the key battles that the club, and indeed the entire country, face. ‘The Troubles’ themselves may have officially ended, but the scars and ill-feeling is far from fully removed.
The club are combating this by inviting schools of both religions in the area to attend youth events, ensuring that protestant and catholic students work together from a young age. This is vitally important to stamp out any remaining bigotry which remains in the elder generations being passed on to children.
One of the other biggest problems the area faces is suicide, which is backed up by the stark figure that it has the most suicides by youths from the age of 15 to 24 in Western Europe.
To tackle this, the project aims to fight the main causes of suicide, such as depression, alcohol and drug abuse, poor education and various other social issues. It does so by aiming to rehabilitate and educate vulnerable youths through sport, both physically and mentally.
They offer a range of personal development training so that young people can undertake courses such as Community Sports Leadership, which improves confidence, self-worth and self- belief. They also run Crime Diversion Programmes, which help offenders who have just left prison or are about to enter it.
It is wonderful to see how the Crusaders have rebuilt not from the chequebook of one benefactor, but through the coming together of a sometimes broken but always compassionate community.
Furthermore, they are looking to help mend the community in which they are entrenched, in the hope that they can both improve and prosper together. The fact that they are sharing a stadium with supposed ‘rivals’ is testament to their inclusive nature and their desire for integration.
Not to mention, they are now enjoying one of their most prosperous times on the field, with a league trophy in the education room of the stadium and a return to Champions League competition.
This is the power that community football has, and this is exactly what football should be about.
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