Brendan Crossan: Declan Caddell - average and one of the best of his generation

Crusaders midfielder Declan Caddell will play in his testimonial match against Rangers at Seaview tomorrow
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

IN recent times there weren’t many better footballers in Irish League football than Liam Boyce.

With that devil-may-care gait, ‘Boycie’ could do things with the ball that the mind couldn’t quite fathom.

That all-conquering Cliftonville team of a few years back had just about everything. The genuine pity was that Chris Scannell’s playing career was approaching its natural end.

He was born a couple of years too early.

The former Reds striker was a beacon of hope for the Reds in darker times, a majestic footballer who just about held on long enough to enjoy the club’s glory, glory years.

Nobody read the pulse of a game better than sweeper Marc Smyth.

Barry Johnston and Ryan Catney were the team’s midfield bouncers who put manners on most opponents they encountered during their back-to-back league-winning feats.

Cliftonville fans were completely spoiled with artisans such as Joe Gormley, George McMullan and Chris Curran - names that will be forever etched in the hearts and minds of the Red Army.

Of course, every great team's cycle comes to end sooner or later.

Gerard Lyttle, Tommy Breslin's successor, somehow squeezed another bit of silverware out of the team and kept the European money rolling in.

But their north Belfast rivals Crusaders could wait no longer to become top dogs.

Stephen Baxter's men didn't have anywhere near the aesthetic appeal of Breslin's team - but they didn't care.

The long-serving Crusaders manager put winner's medals in the pockets of his players like they were sweets.

Nobody epitomises the Crues better than Declan Caddell.

And yet, Caddell is the type of player you wouldn’t give a second glance to.

He wasn’t blessed with great pace. He wouldn’t be hitting many defence-splitting passes either.

He doesn't have quick feet and his heading ability is maybe a six-out-of-10.

When you break Caddell’s game down into its constituent parts it yells ‘average’ at you.

And yet, for all of that averageness, he remains the beating heart of Crusaders Football Club – a servant of the most fanatical kind.

Tomorrow afternoon he will play in his testimonial game against Glasgow Rangers at Seaview (3pm).

Few players deserve a testimonial more than him – a reward for over making over 400 appearances across 12 years and scoring 50-plus goals.

Of course, Baxter deserves immense credit for seeing something in the teenage Caddell over a decade ago who was playing for west Belfast youth club Newhill and hitting a few sliothars for Gort na Mona GAC.

Had Baxter been a football snob and pursued a player with more swagger and poise, the Ballymurphy native might not have become one of the best Irish League players of his generation.

In the early years, Caddell had to bide his time to win the trust of his manager.

“Back then, Stephen [Baxter] was bringing in more experienced players - Darren Lockhart, Mickey Collins and Eamonn Doherty - and it was hard to nail down a place during those years because they were established Irish League players,” Caddell told The Irish News in 2016.

“But I got the head down and Stephen stuck with me. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. He gets me to do what I’m good at and not do what I’m not good at. He gets the best out of me.”

For a lot of opposing fans he is an all-year-round Pantomime villain - the ultimate compliment.

In an interview before last season’s Irish Cup final with Ballinamallard United, Caddell gave a searingly honest appraisal of his own ability.

“I was always an average player – I think I still am average,” he said.

“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…”

The casual watcher will never fully appreciate what Caddell brings to the game.

They’ll not see his GPS stats of 13km per game, the tackles he puts in, the lost causes he pursues in the hope of forcing a mistake out of the opposition, or the passes he gets on the end of, or how his performance levels rarely dip and how he never leaves the field with regrets.

You won’t see him attempting 40-yard passes or step-overs. That kind of stuff is for snobs.

To really get Declan Caddell, you have to understand how the engine room of any team works and appreciate the nightmare he has been to his direct opponents for the past 12 years.

When a player has a clear understanding of what they can and what they can't do is when they'll invariably flourish.

Few players ever truly reach their potential. But that can't be said of the hard-running Crusaders midfielder.

His greatest triumph is that he has got the absolute best out of himself. Not many sportspeople can say that.

Every team could do with a Declan Caddell in their ranks.

Crusaders are lucky to have him.

Tomorrow the club's supporters will get the chance to acknowledge his magnificent contribution.

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