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Football: The last Crusade; FOOTBALL-MAD MINISTER HELPING TO UNITE SPORT AND RELIGION.

Byline: Martin Mawhinney

THE relationship between religion and sport is an inescapable one, regardless of your own personal beliefs.

You only had to watch the funeral proceedings for George Best at the weekend to grasp how the worlds of football and organised religion can at times overlap.

There are, of course, similarities between the two, and many people who have faith in their football team on a Saturday afternoon, take a similar and yet very different faith to church or mass on a Sunday.

The players also often have their own religious rituals, with some praying prior to a big game and others crossing themselves before crossing the white line.

However, there is a less apparent outlet for those involved with local clubs.

The role of chaplains in Irish League football is rarely touched upon by the media, and often goes unnoticed amid all the talk of transfers and silverware.

But, according to Crusaders chaplain Ken White, that is not neccessarily a bad thing.

"It's not everybody's cup of tea," he said. "The important thing for us is that we are here for anyone who needs us.

"I remember asking a chaplain in the navy what exactly he did, and he told me, 'I don't do anything - I be. Now I know what he meant'."

Ken himself admits he didn't appreciate there was a tangible connection between sport and religion before the Hillsborough disaster, where the death of 96 fans in the crush during the build-up to the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool left a nation shock.

The day was a difficult one for Ken, as he was inside the Sheffield-based stadium when the tragedy took place.

He said: "Up until then I didn't really see the link, but it all became apparent after that day.

"A lot of people were crying afterwards, and a lot of people felt the need to be comforted by God."

The Bangor minister, who works with the town's Church of Nazarene, was first drawn to Crusaders through his two sons, who despite him following Carrick Rangers at the time, decided to support the Seaview club instead. And as the saying goes - if you can't beat them, join them.

Ironically, Ken's interest with Crusaders began at a time when Roy Walker's side were being nicknamed 'The God Squad' because so many of the side were regular church goers.

On the whole, the term was intended to be derogatory, but it actually had the opposite effect on the players there at the time.

Ken remarked: "The players turned it to their advantage, and began to take a lot of pride in that nickname. It created a siege mentality at the club, and I think it helped them a great deal."

The effect was a lasting one, and Millar's boys famously went on to win the Irish Premier League title in what was a golden era for the club.

Things have changed greatly since those days and Walker's successor, Alan Dornan, became accustomed to the odd relegation fight.

At such unsettling times, it goes without saying that Ken's services are at their most appreciated.

In the three years that the minister has been chaplain at the North Belfast club, they have both won and lost a relegation/promotion play-off.

Their former experience of the tense two-legged tie was a success against Lisburn Distillery, but last year saw them drop to the First Division after losing out to Glenavon.

Ken said: "It was a shocking feeling when we were relegated. As a West Ham fan, I've seen all the fans' disappointed faces on Match of the Day when they knew we were going down, and for me it's just the same sort of emotion in the Irish League."

Yet the drop to Intermediate level football has not been the gloomy prospect for the Crues that many local fans were expecting.

In fact, Crusaders have shot to a dominant lead in the First Division, have already won the league cup, and now have a Christmas Eve date with Dundela to look forward to in the final of the Steel and Sons Cup.

"There is no reason we won't get the treble," said Ken. "I know it is a different level to the Premier, but that would still be some achievement for us.

"I think the key to this has been the manager, Stephen Baxter's approach to the game. Nothing has changed, and they play every game like they are against Linfield and Glentoran, week in week out.

"We have such a young side it probably did us good to have a year to get used to playing together before we would have been ready for the First Division."

John's roles include attending staff family funerals, and providing a service for any players who feel they need to have a prayer said for them or need support.

It's a position that brings him closer to the action.

"I've always sat near the dugout as a supporter at matches, because I've always been interested in hearing what the managers are shouting at the players.

"So therefore it is a real privilege for me to sit on the bench with Stephen (Baxter) and the other staff."

CAPTION(S):

BENCHED: Rev. Ken White sits in the Crusaders dug-out; SUPPORT: The funerals of George Best and a Hillsborough disaster victim are examples of why people like the Rev. Kevn White are needed
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 6, 2005
Words:902
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