Crusaders ace Declan Caddell: Just "average" and a serial winner
Tennent's Irish Cup final: Crusaders v Ballinamallard United (today, Windsor Park, 2.30pm)
RED and black flags and bunting flutter in the early afternoon sun along the tiny terraced street that leads you to Seaview - the home of Crusaders Football Club.
Inside the resplendent new glass-fronted building at the bottom of the street are the Crusaders players and staff milling around.
This morning's training session was light: a bit of video analysis, some passing drills and a short, sharp training game to finish off.
The players have already had lunch together – clear signs of a functioning full-time Irish Premier League club.
It’s still a few days out from their Irish Cup final meeting with rank outsiders Ballinamallard United.
Stephen Baxter’s mobile phone is glued to his ear.
Sean O’Neill, the club’s larger-than-life goalkeeper, is smiling constantly and bouncing from one group of people to the next.
Colin Coates, David Cushley, young Rory Hale are all chilling.
You’re immediately struck by the relaxed atmosphere of the place. For a long time now, Crusaders have been born ready for big games…
Declan Caddell meets you as you come in the door.
There are two sides to the 31-year-old west Belfast man.
You don’t recognise the softly spoken guy you've seen strutting around Irish League grounds for the last decade or more as if he owns them, the man who has never debated pulling out of a 60-40 tackle in his entire, trophy-laden career.
The figure opposition fans love to hate, the all-year-round pantomime villain, completely unflappable.
The arrogant exterior.
And then you meet him...
Regarded as an uncompromising central defender for Newhill Youth Club, the teenager was on Cliftonville’s radar at one time.
“I was actually meant to go to Cliftonville,” he says. “I remember [ex-Cliftonville manager] Marty Tabb was good friends with my granda and I think he was to ring me. A week or two later Crusaders phoned me and asked me to come down.”
And here he is, converted into a hard-running, no-nonsense central midfielder, preparing for yet another cup final for the Shore Road club.
Even though he’s played over 4oo games for the Crues, scored 50-plus goals, won every domestic honour there is to win and is a celebrated lynchpin of the club, Caddell insists he’s merely an “average” footballer.
Under further interrogation about this claim, he genuinely believes this.
“I was always an average player – I think I still am average,” he says matter-of-factly.
“I think the reason I’ve been a success at this club has been hard work. Stephen [Baxter] has always said that anything I lack in quality I more than make up for in work-rate.
“The best way to understand football is to know the level you’re at. The best advice Stephen ever gave me was: ‘Do what you’re good at.’
“My technical ability, my touch, passing, vision – they’re all average. But I think it all comes down to personality and mentality. It’s whether you want to push yourself and be the best you can be…”
Caddell regularly clocks up 13km per game, more than any other Crusaders player.
It’s true that there’s a special kind of wrath reserved for him by opposition supporters – and he acknowledges he’s made more than a few enemies on the pitch.
“Opponents dislike me,” Caddell says.
“I wouldn’t shy away from that. I think everybody has this opinion of me when they play against me – supporters and players – that I’m not a likeable person.
“I play to my strengths, I do what I’m good at, and that maybe rubs people up the wrong way.
“But the amount of players we’ve signed in the past from Linfield and Glentoran – they come here and they say: ‘You were the person I feared most’ and I ended up best friends with them.
“For instance, Michael Gault and me hated each other - hated each other for years, until we played together and now we’re really good mates.”
Players like Caddell, Gault, Ryan Catney and Shane McCabe were all cut from the same cloth. And while there was never any love lost when they encountered one another, Caddell admired and respected their warrior spirit.
“I said to Ryan [Catney] in his last game for Cliftonville the other week: ‘It’s been a pleasure’ because the last 10 years have been eventful. You miss players like that – Catney, Barry Johnston, Shane McCabe.
“You knew what you were in for when you played against those players. You hit each other in a 50-50 tackle and you got up and shook hands after it.”
Originally from Ballymurphy, Caddell enjoyed a fledgling hurling and football career with local GAA club Gort na Mona until he chose to concentrate on soccer at aged 14.
At Newhill, he played with some incredible players, many of whom went across the water where their dreams often crashed and burned.
“I don’t think young players should want a move [across the water] so early,” he says.
“So many of my Newhill team-mates went across the water, whereas I was seen as never good enough, and yet none of those players are playing football now.”
With the birth of full-time football at places like Seaview, Caddell hopes that fewer younger players will fall through the cracks.
“I think Crusaders gives those players who when they do come back home they can still play full-time football.”
It’s Caddell’s testimonial year and Rangers will travel to Seaview on July 13 for a friendly game to mark his 12 years of service.
There’s a golf day pencilled in for the end of the month and he’s trying to finalise a night with Crusaders fan and local hero Carl Frampton.
But he’s not distracted by all the testimonial events swirling around him ahead of this season’s Irish Cup final showpiece.
He was a late substitute in the club’s last Irish Cup triumph in 2009 – a scratchy 1-0 win over neighbours Cliftonville – before losing back-to-back deciders to Linfield in 2011 and 2012.
Caddell, winner of three Premier League titles, is hoping to savour the big day more than he did as a 21-year-old 10 years ago.
Fatherhood undoubtedly helps that process following the birth of his son Connloadh seven years ago.
“I'd like my son to see me as a role model, someone to be proud of.”
Smiling, he adds: “I hear Connloadh talking to his friends and telling them: ‘My daddy’s a footballer.’ Kids at that age compare you to the players that they love - Ronaldo and Messi…”
Caddell rolls his eyes and smiles.
At 31 and still top of the GPS charts, there is still plenty of road left in Declan Caddell’s brilliant Irish League career.
As for his legacy at the club, he pauses before answering: “I would like to be remembered as someone who put on the Crusaders jersey and played for the badge and gave 100 per cent.
“I think that’s what every fan wants. You can have any amount of quality players in your team, but I think fans appreciate that hard work more than they might do scoring a wonder goal every two months. So as long as they remember me for someone who loved the club, who was loyal and who always gave 100 per cent for the badge, I’ll be content with that.”
Not a bad legacy for someone who's average…