Brendan Crossan: Resurrecting the red jersey of Ashton Gate

The new Ashton Gate U16 team that will compete in the South Belfast Youth League for the first time this season

THE jersey was blood red and the badge simplicity itself. Ashton Gate was the club my father formed back in 1982.

The old kitbag lay in a dark, dusty corner of our garage. Occasionally, I’d open it just to look at the old jerseys and reminisce. To me, it was the best jersey ever sown. But it would never be worn again. So this big, heavy bag of memories sat slumped in the corner of the garage for years before someone finally plucked up the courage to dump it during one of many summer clear-outs.

I lament the day it was thrown out. It was more than a jersey. It was as much to do with a father and son relationship, growing up, living from one Saturday to the next, picking the team in my own head and the blood coursing through young veins when the whistle sounded.

Following Ashton Gate was living. They were a junior football team from north Belfast that played in the Dunmurry & District League. In no time at all, my father - Gerry Crossan - had assembled a hugely talented collection of players from all corners of Belfast.

As a kid, many of the players were heroes of mine. There was nobody like them. Frankie Campbell was a brilliant defender. He played Gaelic football and was a touch-tight marker. Frankie was tough as old boots, no finer tackler in junior football.

Noel Ferran was centre-forward in the team. Noel was a firm favourite of my father’s. And it was easy to understand why. Noel was a match-winner most weeks, a scorer of all types of goals, fantastic in the air and whose touch and awareness were on a different level to those around him.

John McAuley was a winger who left defenders yards behind him from a standing start position and always had end product. There was Gerry Donnelly, who scored goals for fun, and ‘Tootsie’ Barnes could beat you on a sixpence a thousand times over. You had Eamonn McAteer, who made Ashton Gate’s midfield tick. And from the sideline, you could hear the beating hearts of Pat Maguire and ‘Red’ Donnelly - foot soldiers in the truest sense of the word.

My father was a tough, uncompromising man who viewed the world in black-and-white terms. Anything in between frustrated him. He shouted a lot on the sidelines and I’m sure he was wrong many times, but he was still the best manager around.

Looking back, he was probably more thoughtful about the game and his players than he ever gave himself credit for. After four seasons, Ashton Gate had outgrown the Dunmurry & District ranks. They won the treble in 1983/84 and two league and cup doubles in the following two seasons.

They had reached their ceiling but, because they didn’t have a pitch of their own, they couldn’t go any higher. In the summer of 1986, Ashton Gate was approached to merge with top Amateur League side Cromac Albion.

It was an offer my father and his players couldn’t refuse. Although the merger meant the end of Ashton Gate, the players were able to test themselves at a higher level of football. And so the old Ashton Gate football kits were stored away in our garage, collecting dust.

Cromac Albion had won the Steel & Sons Cup (1978), but they could never annex the Division 1A title. But with the new injection of Ashton Gate players and my father managing Cromac, the club won back-to-back league titles.

During the mid-to-late ’80s, Cromac shared some memorable battles with teams such as Killyleagh YC, Drumaness Mills and Kilmore Rec. They played their home games at Cross & Passion school on the Glen Road, west Belfast.

Every Saturday morning, the club’s committee members erected goalposts and netting before games. Despite their back-to-back league title successes, trouble wasn’t far away. Cromac were ejected from the Intermediate Cup by the IFA because their changing rooms weren’t close enough to the pitch. It was a problem that would never go away. 

Back in the late ’80s, there was no such thing as lottery funding or floodlit 4G surfaces that could be shared between clubs. These were austere times. In 1987, Cromac took the IFA to court. My father felt the treatment of Cromac was unfair.

He never feared the consequences of court action because he believed, if Cromac couldn’t play in the IFA’s top intermediate competitions, it wasn’t worth playing football under their auspices at all. Cromac subsequently lost their case against the IFA.

Judge Murray said he could not intervene. The IFA’s rules, said the judge, were sacrosanct. Cromac were saddled with the court fees of around £3,000. It was money they didn’t have. My elder brother Kevin, who was club secretary at the time, wrote to every professional club in England and Scotland asking if they would help Cromac.

The vast majority of the clubs did reply, but only one committed to a financial donation. Scottish Premier League club Hearts sent a cheque for the princely sum of £25. Their letter read: "Thank you for your letter. Please find enclosed our donation of £25. Good luck with your efforts and send us a player as soon as possible." Signed LW Porteous.

Rangers Football Club sympathised with Cromac’s plight and sent a club tie. Aston Villa offered to send an autographed football. Nottingham Forest sent a club pennant and wished us well. Cromac Albion brought the curtain down at the end of the 1990 season. Good times never last forever. 

Yet, 30 years after going out of business, the Ashton Gate name has been resurrected. Kevin, my brother, has formed an U16 team that will compete in the South Belfast Youth League. At their registration night, the new players were handed a letter about the history of the Ashton Gate name.

The club’s mission statement read: "Why now? Why not? The aims of this ‘new’ Ashton Gate is to help players develop both on and off the pitch, not only as footballers, but as individuals. Where the team goes from here will be solely down to the players. They can take this new venture as far as they like. The players will decide." A union of the old and new Ashton Gate will come together on Wednesday, September 21 in the Cliftonville Bowling Club. 

My father passed away six-years-ago after a 20-month battle with cancer. He would have been a happy man to see that blood red jersey back again.

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