Lydia is currently on holiday, but before she left was able to do an excellent interview with the chairman of our next Europa League opponents, Crusaders.

North Belfast is the next destination for Fulham as we travel there to take on Crusaders Football Club in the 2nd Qualifying round of the Europa League. Many of you will not know much about the Belfast side so let me fill you in. Crusaders play at Seaview Stadium which can now hold around up to nearly 3,000 people. It is a new 4G pitch, the first to be used in the Irish premier League.

I was fortunate enough to meet up with Stephen Bell, the Crusaders FC Chairman, who very kindly gave up his time to chat to me about the club and about the excitement of Fulham coming to town in a Europa League game and also have a quick look around the recently renovated stadium. Here is an overview of the chat I had with him:

Can you give us an overview of Crusaders 2010/11 Season?

“Basically we finished runners up in the league and in the cup and qualified for the Europa League. It’s been a great season! For the past 4 years Stephen Baxter has been in charge and we have improved every year.”

I can see the new facilities around like the pitch and the stands. How have these improved things?

We are trying to improve the facilities for the fans. This ground about 2 or 3 years ago was nothing but terracing. We are trying to improve the team but also bring the stadium along with us. It’s important to have the best possible facilities for the fans which is something that the Irish League has been lacking over the past 20 or even 30 years! The pitch itself is a real money generator for us. It also means that the team itself now is more physically fit. We are training more on it; we are not relying on other places now to train. Before we were going down to Jordanstown (University of Ulster, Jordanstown) but when the weather was bad training had to be called off so we think now our general fitness has improved. We never have to miss training now.”

So it’s a big bonus then, especially coming into a game like this?

Well that’s it you know. The fitness of the players is very important now and the fitness in the Irish League has generally improved because of these kinds of facilities.”

How has the club been preparing for the game?

“Well the boys aren’t long back, maybe just 2 weeks into training. So a couple of training sessions and 2 friendly’s against Neath (Wales) and Larne (Northern Ireland).  Neath are also in the Europa league and they are similar to ourselves. They have just turned full time so those were two good quality games. We found 2 years ago when we were in the Europa League that we were playing junior teams in the build up and probably weren’t getting the work out that we needed so I think we have fitted a few better quality friendly’s in which helps. But other than that it has just been our normal Tuesday and Thursday training sessions.”

We have had a bit of talk among the Fulham fans that the game might be being moved to Windsor Park. Do you have any comments about that?

Well two of the stands are now finished and we are just starting work on the unreserved stand to put seats in it and that will be finished before the game. We are quite confident that the game will take place here. We have spent a lot of money and have put in a lot of hard work to make sure we can play European football here and having Fulham here now is a big opportunity just to push everybody on and make sure that the work is finished on time.”

Does the prospect of having Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird playing here as Northern Ireland internationals add anything to the game?

“Well it does as it will help us pick up a few neutrals as certainly Northern Ireland supporters will want to come and watch the match. The game has generated a lot of interest too within Belfast, with a lot of media attention at the minute because it’s a high profile game. It’s probably our biggest game since we played Liverpool in 1977 and that’s the way we are looking at it. Cup finals are big games for the club but having an English Premier League club coming is a fantastic opportunity for the club. I would just like to say as well that we have been trying to open the new stands by bringing a big club over with no success; so this tie will kill two birds with one stone. Fulham are coming over to play a competitive game and we will fill the place.”


So are you expecting a sell out crowd then?

“Yes ticket sales are going very well at the minute. The tickets have been on sale to our members over the past few days and next week we will start to put them on sale to the general public. There is a lot of interest out there for tickets.”

(Since this interview took place on 3rd of July all the work that Stephen is talking about here has all been completed now)

Now about the actual match- Who do you think are your dangerous players? Who can really cause Fulham a big problem?

“Well we have a smashing team this year. Stephen Baxter has been building the team for 4 years and I would say all the players are dangerous! But people are talking about Stuart Dallas (the winger) and certainly Jordan Owens (the centre forward) plus Colin Coates, the centre half. Over the past couple of years people have been trying to sign them but their loyalties lie here and that’s great for Crusaders. Stephen Baxter brings them here and all they want to do is play football because they enjoy it. And I think this tells through the results and the way the team performs. Even the new boys that we have brought in- we signed Ciarn Cargan from Donegal Celtic, who were fighting relegation last year and he is over the moon at the prospect of playing a Premier League side now.

A lot of our players, Colin Coates in particular have come through our youth team and this is wait we try and do here, we try and build from the youth sides and stand by those players. We are attracting a younger fan base through this so it works well for us.”

What do you expect from your team over the 2 matches?

“I think that our 4G pitch will give us an advantage and I think we will give Fulham a good game here. I’ll not give you a result or score line but I think Fulham will find it very tough here, very intimidating. Supporters are so close to the pitch and there will be a full house and the atmosphere will be electric. We are aiming to make it a party atmosphere and that will be good for us as the atmosphere will be right on the touchline.

We like to get the ball down and pass it with fast mobile players and a big centre forward who knows where the net is! So we are confident that we can get some sort of result here although Craven Cottage might be a different cup of tea! But we are delighted the first game is here and this will give us a chance to start the game and really show what we can do. There are a lot of teams talking about our players, I know Blackpool have been interested in Stuart Dallas and Jordan Owens so those boys will be bursting to play against Premier League opposition. It’ll be a good test for our players to see where they stand and how much they have come on in the past number of years.”

Does the prospect of going to London to play at Craven Cottage excite the players as much as the fans?

“Yeah, the whole place is buzzing! From the minute the draw came out everybody has been talking about it and there is an extra buzz in training now. However we picked up a bad injury in training yesterday as our midfielder Chris Morrows is out of the match and is gutted about it. But everybody, right down to the youth teams, have been lifted because of the draw. To be the chairman of the club, it is so exciting to have my club play against one from England.”

Stephen also told me his excitement when he found out about some of Fulham’s famous fans and that he would have a ticket ready for Lily Allen if she wanted one!

I have been waiting a long time for the opportunity to see Fulham come to Belfast and could hardly believe my misfortune when I realised that I had booked a holiday over the game. Stephen joked with me saying that he would have cancelled his holiday and I assured him that I was tempted!

Throughout the interview it was very evident the passion that Stephen has for Crusaders FC and the fans. It was a pleasure getting to meet him and some of the other people around the club. He even gave me a quick tour of the stadium and the changing rooms. Fulham will no doubt be the favourites of this draw but make no mistake about it, these Crusaders boys can play good football and Fulham cannot take this game too lightly!