True North: Crusaders - Keeping the Faith on BBC One NI on Monday 23 October

Crusaders players Sean O'Neill, Howard Beverland and Matthew Snoddy with manager Stephen Baxter
Crusaders players Sean O'Neill, Howard Beverland and Matthew Snoddy with manager Stephen Baxter

Just over a decade ago, Crusaders Football Club were relegated and on the brink of bankruptcy.

But last season they were on the cusp of an historic three Irish League titles in a row.

With faith at its core, its home in a working class area of north Belfast, Crusaders have fought to overcome more than most.

Given exclusive access to the changing room, fans and players, a new BBC Northern Ireland 'True North' documentary gives audiences an unprecedented insight into the club during the 2016-2017 season.

'Crusaders-Keeping The Faith', on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:40 BST on Monday 23 October, also looks at the heritage of a club, its players once labelled the 'God Squad' due to the Christian make-up of its team.

Former star striker Stephen Baxter has been first team manager for nearly 12 years. Cameras follow him and his team as they embark on a new season - with a nail-biting last day finale - that could see them secure a momentous third Premier League title in a row.

Stephen highlights the importance of the club to the local community, and its importance to the club: "On those roads with the terraced houses there is a family of people whose community is in Crusaders Football Club. And the warmth of the people for me is, they would give you their last."

The programme, made by Natalie Maynes and Thomas Niblock who produced the acclaimed 'Crossmaglen: Field of Dreams' documentary, combines the action on the pitch with a no-holds-barred view of the club off the pitch.

Crusaders, like its north Belfast rivals, Cliftonville, is a cross-community club but because of its location, Crusaders is perceived as Protestant. When Crusaders play Cliftonville, who are perceived as a Catholic club, the fear of sectarian violence is never far away.

Sean O'Neill
Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O'Neill played gaelic football for Antrim

Catholic players at the club can also come in for abuse. However Goalkeeper Sean O'Neill made a more unusual pathway into the Irish League than most. From the Falls Road, Gaelic football was Sean's first love and he still trains at the GAA club he joined when he was six years old.

"My family was Gaelic, Gaelic, Gaelic. There was no soccer. Soccer was called the foreign sport. Catholic. Protestant. Everyone's human at the end of the day - everyone's the same. You come to Crusaders and you're able to play football and put the ball in the back of the net - that's much more important," said O'Neill.

Viewers also get to witness the journey back to fitness for injured players and the frustrations of being on the outside unable to break back into the first team.

And there are candid accounts of the unseen pressures, demands and distractions that can blight young players and how they deal with matters away from the dressing room.

"Crusaders-Keeping The Faith" also explores the Christian ethos at Crusaders. When Stephen Baxter was scoring goals and securing two league titles in the 1990s the Christian faith was a central part of the team.

Stephen said: "I became a Christian when I was 19. Years later when I was coming to play football for Crusaders Football Club, there were 12 Christians at the football club. So we got labelled the 'God Squad' because we went on this great run. A football environment wasn't seen as a Christian environment and that myth I felt was blown away at that moment."

Crusaders are still known for their Christian ethos. A quarter of the dressing room have connections with the Evangelical churches that pepper north Belfast and the programme hears from current players Howard Beverland and Matthew Snoddy about how they balance their faith and their football.

After the glory days of the 1990s, Crusaders faced darker times with relegation and the threat of bankruptcy.

The programme hears how the club managed to avoid financial meltdown and prosper by turning to its loyal fan base who dipped into their own pockets to help pay off the club's debts.

During the 2016-17 season, the club repays the last of those loyal fans including one who handed over his £500 life savings to his beloved club - with no guarantee at the time of ever seeing it again.

Back on the pitch, there's plenty of action as the team goes on an unbeaten run and tops the table. But a healthy lead can disappear. Viewers get to see what goes on behind the scenes in the changing room as emotions run high. There are local derbies, top of the table clashes and a dramatic last day with that historic treble still a possibility.

"True North: Crusaders-Keeping The Faith" is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday 23 October at 22:40 BST.

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