Last season’s Danske Bank Women’s Premiership may have been short on games but it was not lacking in drama and Crusaders Strikers were one of the stories of the campaign.
Spike Hill’s side collected an admirable 16 points from their 10 league games and had been in third position in the standings going into their final game.
It suggested green shoots of a true return to prominence for the club who won three league titles between 2009 and 2012 but have not recorded a top two finish in eight years.
However, the Crues are beginning to reap the rewards of the club’s Academy with 11 members of the senior squad aged 20 or younger and the future looking bright.
The club’s focus is on continuing to develop their young crop of players to elevate the Crues into the very top bracket of sides in the division.
“There is a great rapport and spirit at the club,” Hill explained.
“We’ve changed the background team and from that you then need to build a mutual trust between everyone, so now that continuity should be important.
“Our approach has always been to have sustainable growth and not to be focused on bringing new players into the club but rather to develop our own.
“Recently we have brought three more players up from our Under-19 side to be involved closely in training and to be part of the panel.
“Last season was a challenge for everyone and bringing young players into the side in such a short season was not the focus, I’ll admit that - but that is what our goal is for this campaign.
“The entire point of our academy is to promote a handful of players to make the first-team grade each year.”
One of the Crues teenage stars is striker Emily Wilson who has been involved in Northern Ireland’s successful qualification campaign for next summer’s European Championships, while 18-year-old goalkeeper Maddy Harvey-Clifford has also received her first international call-up.
However, despite all their young stars it is the ever-green Julie Nelson - who has clocked up well over 100 caps at international level and who has won seven league titles at the Seaview club - who continues to lead by example.
“Julie is exemplary for everyone at the club,” added Hill.
“How she conducts herself with her training regime, her commitment and her leadership is top class, she is so driven.
“The challenge for us is to make the younger girls coming through look at how she looks after herself and the career she has enjoyed, and to try and emulate that.
“The way she trains, the way she eats and looks after her body is something that is a dream for coaches and her presence is really influential.”
Nelson will no doubt form part of Northern Ireland’s squad next summer but the Crues are one of the many local clubs who have provided the backbone for their successes.
With qualification to the European finals assured, Hill believes interest levels and participation in the new season will be higher than ever.
“We have been preparing for the new season with friendlies against Northern Ireland’s Under-19 and Derry City,” added the Strikers boss.
“Naturally it has been tricky to prepare as ideal for the season and particularly without our international players.
“One of the things we worried about coming out of Covid was a loss of interest due to the prolonged break, but the international success has just made attention and interest levels explode.
“I have coaching experience from the youth sides and having that first-hand experience of the players involved, it’s no surprise at all to me what they have managed to achieve.
“What Kenny Shiels has achieved is amazing but the groundwork has been put in by those players and people in the background for years, so it is testimony to them all.”
The Crues kick-off their campaign away to Glentoran Women on 28 April.