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Few players have such a strong connection to any one club as experienced midfielder Danielle McDowell has with Crusaders.

The central midfielder, who has won 43 caps for the Northern Ireland international side, is a lifelong fan of the Crues and is now in her 17th campaign with the Strikers.

Originally joining Newtownabbey Strikers (later renamed Crusaders Strikers) in 2002 as a 16-year-old, McDowell blossomed into a playing star at the club and has combined this with coaching over the last decade.

"I've been going to watch the Crusaders men's first team since I was a five-year-old, my mum is originally from the Shore Road and the club are a massive part of my life," explained McDowell.

"I joined Newtownabbey Strikers when I was a 16-year-old in 2002 and have been with the club ever since, right through its link up with Crusaders to the present day.

"For many years the two top teams were ourselves and Glentoran, I think the Glens won seven league titles and we won six over that period - so it was a real sporting rivalry.

"Linfield approached Newtownabbey first regarding a link-up - because at that point, the entire structure of the club was in place and big clubs here were taking more notice of women's football and wanted a team of their own.

"But at the time it wasn’t the right move for the club because the club did not see how it would benefit us, other than being able to call ourselves Linfield.

"For Crusaders it was different as they did not have the resources or financial power at the time but they provided their first-team stadium (Seaview), the club kit, the club house for fundraisers - we could see the benefits of that link.

"I've been head of Youth Development for the club now for a decade and there's always been a feel-good factor at the club and sharing the facilities is great for us."

McDowell - who is engaged to Glenavon goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey - admits that she is into the final stages of her playing career but she looks set to have a big future involvement in football.

"I'm coming to the end of my playing days, and over the years I’ve sustained a couple of bad knee injuries," she added.

"I've ruptured my cruciate, my MCL and my cartilage all in the same knee so playing does hurt me and the pain is always there.

"I still enjoy playing and I'm enthusiastic for the games and training but with the level of coaching I do for Crusaders, the IFA and Ulster University, I don't always have the time to train properly.

"I'm on the pitch a lot of the time but my focus is taken away from the intensity of training so it's harder to keep up with the top players in the league.

"I know that it will either be this season or next which will be my last playing at this level, but I'm doing my coaching badges now so I'm still learning and developing, and I'm very happy with what I do.

"I want to make Northern Ireland players better as a whole and hopefully I can play a part in their development along the way."

The Crues are enduring a tough campaign; they lost 1-0 in the League Cup semi-final to Glentoran on Monday but more worryingly, have lost four successive league matches.

"We are going through a real transition at the moment," admitted McDowell.

"There is a group of players here, myself included, who have been at the club for between 10 and 15 years so we are now trying to blood academy players into the side.

"It's not an easy task to do this and it takes time and patience, but five or six youngsters have been given minutes this season and hopefully in the long term this will pay off.

"We don't have a lot of energy in this current team as most players are either side of our peak, but while we knew we would not challenge for the title this year, we have been disappointed with our early results.

"Our aim this year is to compete in the league and to go on a lengthy cup run, because the last five years or so have seen our results dwindle but we need to work towards recovering that form.

"We were really disappointed in how we performed in the five-goal loss to Glentoran and the four-goal loss to Cliftonville, and we needed to respond to that.

"We thought we got that in our League Cup semi-final against the Glens on Monday, they went down to 10 players late on and we were pushing for an equaliser - but those are the performances we demand."

Tags:  Crusaders Strikers