Stephen Baxter pays tribue to Crusaders legend Declan Caddell

Midfielder Declan Caddell sipped on a cool beer having just savoured one of his most memorable moments in a career that had just ended after almost two decades.

By Alex Mills
Monday, 9th May 2022, 1:00 pm

His manager Stephen Baxter was gushing with praise for the 34-year-old, who had just pulled on the famous red and black jersey of Crusaders for the final time.

The North Belfast side had somehow come back from the dead to pip gutsy Ballymena United for the Samuel Gelston’s Whiskey Irish Cup at a colourful Windsor Park.

It looked a lost cause for Caddell and his team mates as they trailed to an early own goal by Robbie Weir. His dream exit, a long way off.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Declan Caddell and Billy Joe Burns lift the Irish Cup following their win over Ballymena United. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

The Crues huffed and puffed without ever creating anything tangible – until the third of four added minutes. Paul Heatley whipped in a corner kick from the left, goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey got up above everyone else to flick the ball to Josh Robinson, who poked home at the back post – incredible!

If that was tough for the Sky Blues to swallow, worse was to follow. Neither side appeared capable of winning it in the 30 minutes of extra time – until deep into injury time, Heatley’s free kick was cleared to Johnny McMurray on the edge of the box and he buried it – unbelievable! The Irish Cup was the first trophy Caddell won in his illustrious career with the Crues – and it was fitting it was also his last.

“There will never be another Declan Caddell, we will never see the like of him again,” purred Baxter. “He has given 20 years’ service to our football club; he came in as a raw teenager.

“By his own admission, he’ll admit he’s not a great footballer as regards of how he passes it (the ball) and all that sort of stuff. He wouldn’t have the qualities of a Ben Kennedy. But what Declan Caddell has, is the heart of a lion.

“He has the work rate of three men . . . he wins battles. He was the first name on my team sheet for 10 full years. He out worked and out ran everyone in training, he is an amazing person.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him. It’s a sad loss to lose Declan I think there is another year left in him. But the job of director of football for youth has come at this time for him and I appreciate that. I wish him well, it’s great for him. We love him to bits.

“We now need to find the next Declan Caddell, which will be an easy thing to do.”

If the bubbly was flowing in one dressing room, just a few yards down the corridor the silence was deafening . . . United were still trying to come to terms with how cruel football can be.

Baxter and United chief David Jeffrey had a long embrace on the touchline on the final blast of Tony Clarke’s whistle.

“David and I go back a long way,” he added. “He is three years older than me. He was a superstar when I first met him when he came back from Manchester United.

“I was a bit in awe of him, I suppose. I played against him for Ards when I got my break in Irish League football, he was a Linfield.

“When I joined the Blues, he kicked me up and down Midgley Park and repeatedly told me to ‘toughen up’.

“We formed a lifelong friendship as players and off the pitch with our families. We have socialised together and we have been on some marvellous trips all through the years.

“I knew how this would all work. We said we would have a moment straight after the game, no matter how the game went.”