Crusaders Football and Athletic Club was formed in the year 1896. The first meeting of the Club is believed to have been held at 182 North Queen Street, Belfast, the home of Thomas Palmer who, along with James McEldowney, John Hume and Thomas Wade, was a member of the original Committee.
Many names were suggested for the Club including Rowan Star, Cultra United, Queen's Rovers, Mervue Wanderers and Lilliputians. Thomas Wade felt that a name of more international significance should be adopted and he suggested 'Crusaders', after the medieval Christian knights.
Initially the Club was only able to undertake friendly fixtures until they were admitted to some of the local junior Alliance Leagues. Players were compelled to pay a match fee of two old pence before they could take the field. It was strictly no pay - no play.
The very first competitive game of which there is any existing record was on the 10th December, 1898. It came in the North Belfast Alliance against opponents named Bedford and reports state that, "after a splendid game Crusaders won by 5 to 2."
1900 - 1949
Crusaders went on to compete in the Alexandra Alliance, Dunville Alliance, Ormeau Junior Alliance, Alexandra Alliance, Woodvale Alliance and Irish Football Alliance until their election to the Intermediate League in 1921. The Crues became one of the top junior clubs in the country but in spite of winning an impressive collection of junior trophies, including the Intermediate League Championship in 1925/26, all applications for entry to the senior Irish League were turned down. Such was the frustration that consideration was given to making application either to the Scottish League or to the League of Ireland.
1925-1926 Crusaders Intermediate League winning team.
The team played at a variety of venues before settling at Seaview in 1921. Earlier home venues included the Glen (which later became part of Alexandra Park), Cavehill Road, Simpson's Boiler Fields, Shore Road (opposite the Grove) and Rokeby Park. Seaview was officially opened on Saturday, September 3, 1921 by Mr William Grant, M.P., prior to kick-off in an Intermediate League fixture against Cliftonville Olympic.
World War II meant that there was no football played by the Crues between April 1941-September
1949 - 1976
Belfast Celtic's dramatic withdrawal frm the senior ranks in 1949 resulted in Crusaders being elected in their place in time for the start of the 1949/50 season. Their first competitive game as a senior club was on August 20, 1949 and resulted in a 1-0 City Cup win at Portadown. However, the season was tough going for the 'Hatchetmen', as they were known, and they had to apply for re-election after finishing in 11th place out of 12 clubs.
However, as has always been the case, Crusaders never lacked determination. Under the player-managership of Jackie Vernon they recovered to win their first senior trophy in the 1953/4 season by defeating Linfield 2-1 in the final of the Ulster Cup.
The 1950's were not easy in spite of the presence in the side of some excellent individuals and the end of the 1957/58 season saw another application for re-election.
The 1960's brought some much-needed success. The Crues won the Ulster Cup once more and the County Antrim Shield twice but these successes were overshadowed by two unexpected victories in the Irish Cup Finals of 1967 and 1968 against the might of Glentoran and Linfield respectively. The Crues had arrived! So, too, did European competition as a consequence.
There were other significant happenings in the same decade. In July 1966 the original Social Club, dressing rooms and administration areas were destroyed by fire. They were replaced some four years later by the present bigger and better facilities.
There was more unprecedented success in the 1970's, with the Irish League championship trophy twice finding a home at Seaview, in 1973 and 1976.
1976 - 2000
The second championship triumph resulted in the never-to-be-forgotten European Cup-tie with Liverpool which saw the brave Cruemen fall to the might of Keegan, Toshack, etc at Anfield by just 2-0.
The home leg which followed was played before a crowd hanging from the rafters that would undoubtedly give the current Health and Safety legislators a heart attack.
Although performances in the 1980's were steady, they certainly were not spectacular and the club paid the penalty of not building on earlier successes. Manager Jackie Hutton had no money with which to buy players but he did the club a great service when he somehow completed the deal which brought Roy Walker to Seaview. Hutton was quick to recognise the leadership qualities in Walker and saw him as his potential successor.
At the same time, local businessman Harry Corry, pumped some desperately-needed sponsorship money into the club. As the revival began, southern businessman Tony O'Connell also became involved. It was a partnership that was to produce the most successful spell in the club's history.
Walker took over as player-manager in September 1989, two years after his arrival as a player. One of his first tasks was to apply for re-election as the Crues finished 13th out of 14 clubs.
Walker's sides - he dubbed them "the team with no boots" - went on to win nearly everything in sight whilst wealthier and bigger-supported clubs could only watch and wonder.
There were two further championship titles won (1995 and 1997) whilst Crusaders also finished runners-up in 1993 and 1996. Other trophies won were the County Antrim Shield (1992), Ulster Cup (1993), Gold Cup (1996) and the Stena Line Trophy (1996).
In turn, this meant more expeditions into Europe as the Crues took on teams from Switzerland, Denmark, Lithuania and Georgia within a five-year span.
In addition to the first team and the reserves, teams at Under 16 and Under 18 level were introduced as the club looked to nurture and develop local talent in the area.
Roy Walker resigned as manager in July 1998, just prior to the Club's Centenary Dinner celebrations at Belfast's City Hall.
Since then, lack of funds has seen the Seaview fortunes decline, with Dublin-based managers Aaron Callaghan and Martin Murray both resigning after one year apiece in charge.
Former player Gary McCartney took over the managerial reins in July 2000. The team retained Premier League status after a nail-biting play-off success over Lisburn Distillery in May 2001 but McCartney resigned just over 12 months later because of the limited budget at his disposal.
Popular veteran defender Alan Dornan was appointed as his successor at the end of June 2002 and the side retained their Premier League status that season under his guidance, although the squad was very inexperienced and often included six or seven teenagers. Dornan was eventually sacked as Crusaders boss in February 2005 as the Crues lay at the bottom of the table, despite having guided the team to the County Antrim Shield final (although ultimately they lost in the final to Linfield).
Former striker and fans' favourite Stephen 'Stanley' Baxter was appointed as manager but, despite an improvement in results, he could not keep the club in the Premier League. Crusaders lost out to Glenavon in a relegation play-off. The relegation was the first time Crusaders had ever been relegated from any league, and meant an end to 56 consecutive seasons of senior football. Happily, though, they bounced back the following year under Baxter by claiming a Treble haul - the Intermediate League Cup, the Steel and Sons Cup and of course the IFA Intermediate League Championship.
After their first season back in the top flight after promotion, the Hatchetmen finished in a very creditable 6th place. In the 2007/08 season, the Crues finished in 7th position in the League after a somewhat inconsistent start to the season. They appeared in two finals, losing the Co. Antrim Shield, 2-1 to Glentoran, and the Irish League Cup, 3-2 to Linfield.
During 2008/09, Crusaders finished in the top three of the League for the first time in ten years and also won their first Irish Cup final since 1968. Thanks to a Mark Dickson goal, in a 1-0 victory over Cliftonville at Windsor Park on 9 May 2009, Stephen Baxter claimed his first senior trophy as manager of the Club and took the club into European action against Macedonian outfit Rabotnicki in the Europa League.
Crusaders has always drawn its support from the working class people of North Belfast, from these members it elects its committee and its particular ethos. At an EGM in June 2009 the members voted to change the Club’s constitution to become a "company limited by guarantee". This in order, to help facilitate a proposed move to a new stadium at the North Foreshore. Also at this time Chairman Jim Semple stood down and was replaced by Stephen Bell and a new Management Committee were also elected.
In October 2009 work begins on installing the Irish League’s first ever 3G pitch and a new floodlighting system at Seaview. There are also plans at an advanced stage for two new all-seater stands to be erected at the end of this season.
During the 2008/09 season Crusaders finished in the top three of the league for the first time in 10 years and also won their first Irish Cup final since 1968, thanks to a Mark Dickson goal, in a 1-0 victory over Cliftonville at Windsor Park on 9 May 2009. The Irish Cup win was Stephen Baxter’s first senior trophy as manager of the club. There was also International recognition for two of the clubs players as Colin Coates and Martin Donnelly made their Northern Ireland debuts in the June friendly against Italy.
Crusaders has always drawn its support from the working class people of North Belfast. From these members it elects its committee and its particular ethos. At an EGM in June 2009 the members voted to change the Club’s constitution to become a "company limited by guarantee", in order, to help facilitate a proposed move to a new stadium at the North Foreshore. Also at this time long serving Chairman Jim Semple stood down and was replaced by Stephen Bell and a new Management Committee were also elected.
2009 – Present
The 2009 Irish Cup victory was seen as a watershed moment in Crusaders modern history which announced the clubs arrival back competing in the upper echelons of Irish League football.
The 2009-10 season began with a return to European football for the first time since 1997 with an Europa League tie with FK Rabotnicki of Macedonia. A bumper crowd saw the Crues earn a credible 1-1 in the first leg at Mourneview Park Lurgan despite missing a second half penalty. The 2nd leg a week later was played in the heat and humidity of Skopje and saw the Crues go down 4-2.
Hopes were high of a first Irish League title since 1997 and the Crues started the season well only to fade in the final third of the season and eventually finish 4th in the table. Unfortunately the clubs Irish Cup defence would end after a quarter final replay defeat to Portadown who also knocked the Crues out of the League Cup.
However there would be more silverware added to the Seaview trophy cabinet with the addition of the County Antrim Shield, following a 3-2 victory over Linfield in January 2010. The Crues had to fight back from being 2-1 down with minutes to go to win 3-2 after extra time. Skipper Colin Coates scored a last minute equaliser and Jordan Owens scored an extra time winner to secure the clubs 6th shield win.
In November 2009 the club installed the Irish League’s first ever 4G pitch and also a new modern floodlighting system at Seaview. At the same time the club also unveiled plans to build 2 new stands to make the ground an all seated stadium. Also during the 2009/10 season the club appeared in front of the Sky Sports cameras for the first time to a nationwide audience. The 3-0 win over Glenavon in March was shown live on Sky Sports as part of their broadcast agreement with the Irish Football Association.
The 2010/11 season began with the Crues reputation as a ‘cup team’ further enhanced by the last seasons Shield success. The club were eager to prove their league credentials, yet that seemed unlikely after a 3-1 defeat to Linfield on the 4th January 2011 left the Crues in 4th position well behind the leaders. However a remarkable run of 10 straight victories took the club to the top of the league at the beginning of March only to lose a decisive league match against Linfield at Seaview. That meant the club would eventually finish 2nd in the table ,their highest league finish since 1997.
The fantastic second half of the season also saw the club reach the Irish Cup Final for the second time in 3 years. Again however Linfield would prove to be the clubs nemesis scoring 2 late goals to win the final 2-1 after Declan Caddell’s spectacular strike had given the Crues the lead at the start of the second half.
There would be more international recognition for three of the clubs players as Colin Coates, Stuart Dallas and Jordan Owens were called up to the Northern Ireland squad for the Nations Cup games with the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Colin Coates appeared in both games while Owens and Dallas featured as substitutes in the game against Wales.
Stuart Dallas capped a fine first season at the club when he was named both the Northern Ireland Football Writers Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year.
The 2010/11 season saw the next stage of the redevelopment of Seaview with the construction of two new stands at the Railway End and the Shore Road End as well as the installation of seats in the old ‘Unreserved’ Stand. The work bought the capacity of Seaview up to just over 3000 all seated.
Crusaders returned to the Europa League at the start of the 2011/12 season courtesy of last seasons second place finish in the league. They were rewarded with a glamour tie against English Premier League side Fulham who fittingly played in the first match at the redeveloped Seaview. Fulham took the lead in the first half but Crusaders netted a sensational equaliser in the second half through debutant striker Timmy Adamson. Minutes later Adamson missed a glorious chance to put Crusaders in the lead and as the game wore on the Premier League sides superior fitness levels showed through and the ran out 3-1 winners.
The second leg a week later was a formality for the Londoners but Crusaders, cheered on by a travelling support of around 600, gave a good account of themselves despite a 4-0 defeat.
Following the encouraging performances in the Europa League, hopes were again high of a sustained league challenge. However an inconsistent first half of the season left the Crues too far behind those at the top of the table and manager Stephen Baxter took the decision at Christmas time to concentrate on the three remaining cup competitions.
It was to prove the right decision as the Crues won the League Cup at the end of January for just the second time in their history after a 1-0 victory over Coleraine in the final. Chris Morrow was the match winner scoring a fine goal after 34 minutes.
The remainder of the season saw the Crues battle their way to the finals of the Irish Cup and All-Ireland Setanta Cup. The Setanta Cup run included memorable two-legged victories over Irish sides Bohemians and Sligo Rovers in the quarter and semi finals.
The club finished 5th in the league table and ended the season with the Irish Cup Final and the Setanta Sports Cup final. In the Irish Cup Final, Crusaders would once again face Linfield who would run out 4-1 winners. It was a disappointing performance from the Crues who would have to pick themselves up quickly for the following weeks Setanta Cup final against Derry City.
The Setanta Cup Final a week later would prove to be one of the finest hours in the clubs history. Despite dominating much of the match against Derry City the Crues fell behind to an 80th minute goal by Rory Patterson. However Captain Colin Coates headed home an 86th minute equaliser to take the game to extra time.
Stephen McBride was sent off for Crusaders for a second booking at the start of extra time but remarkably Coates prodded the Crues into the lead only for Patterson to equalise from the spot to take the game to a penalty shoot out.
With the sides level at 4 all after 5 penalties, Sean O’Neill saved Dermot McCaffrey’s effort to allow Gareth McKeown to smash home the winning penalty and spark pandemonium amongst the victorious players and supporters. There were fantastic scenes back at the Social Club later that evening as the players paraded the two trophies along the Shore Road on an open topped bus.
Chris Morrow topped off a fine individual season by being named the Northern Ireland Football Writers Player of the Year, the second successive year a Crusaders player had won the award.
The 2012/13 season began with another Europa League campaign. This time Crusaders drew the top seeds Rosenborg of Norway. The Norwegians won 3-0 at Seaview before winning 1-0 at the Lerkendal Stadium in Trondheim.
If Linfield had proved to be the Crues main nemesis in previous season, this year would see North Belfast rivals Cliftonville as the main obstacle to further success. The Crues would finish as runners up to their derby rivals in both the League and the League Cup. The Crues also exited the Irish Cup at the semi final stage again at the hands of their city rivals.
Fate would pair the Crues again with Rosenborg in the 2013/14 Europa League draw. This time he Crues ran the Norwegians close at Seaview before going down by 2 goals to 1. Rosenborg turned on the style in the 2nd leg and ran out comprehensive 7-2 winners at The Lerkendal.
Once again the Crues challenged Cliftonville and Linfield for the title, going top of the table at the start of December, but a poor Christmas period saw them lose ground once again and they eventually finished in third place securing European football once again.
The Crues had little luck once again in the cup competitions this year losing the League Cup Final on penalties to Cliftonville and The County Antrim Shield Final to Linfield in the same manner. The club also reached the semi-finals of the Irish Cup but lost after extra time to eventual winners Glenavon.
History was made at the start of the 2014/15 season as the Crues progressed through a round in Europe for the first time. Having drawn Lithuanian side FK Ekranas in the Europa League the Crues ran out 3-1 winners in the home leg before winning the away leg a week later by 2 goals to 1. The Crues reward for their progress was a tie with Swedish side IF Bromma. The first leg was played at the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm but it proved to be a game too far as the Swedes ran out 4-0 winners although the Crues gained a credible 1-1 draw in the return leg at Seaview a week later.
Unfortunately there was a sombre start to the domestic season as the club mourned the passing of legendary Club Captain Walter McFarland. McFarland was a mainstay of the Crusaders sides of the 1960’s and 70’s and was inducted into the clubs Hall of Fame in 2007.
Off the pitch the club announced plans to redevelop the St. Vincent Street side of the ground and further increase the capacity of Seaview. Plans were also unveiled to build a Centre of Excellence in Newtownabbey.
February 2015 saw manager Stephen Baxter celebrate 10 years in charge of the club and his side were well placed to finally deliver the League Championship back to Seaview.