Just a month ago financially-troubled Lisburn Distillery looked certain to be relegated from the Carling Premiership. Now, though, they are playing like champions and moving away from trouble. Stuart McKinley investigates this stunning transformation
The term ‘crisis-club’ has been used to describe Lisburn Distillery so many times this season that football fans here could have been forgiven for thinking it was a new prefix to the club’s name.
Crisis was putting it mildly though. As things were going from bad to worse on the pitch, suddenly, just before Christmas, the Whites were plunged into a serious financial predicament.
It emerged that an unpaid rates bill had led to a winding-up order being served on the club and in the wake of that, chairman Jim McGrory and some board members made a rather sharp exit.
There was little sign of a speedy recovery and then came the news that manager Tommy Wright and his players had been going without wages for some six weeks.
Rooted to the bottom of the league, it would have been men in white coats rather than white shirts who’d have been called to Ballyskeagh to see to anyone who suggested at that stage that Distillery would be safe come the end of the season.
Wright (right) was appointed as the club’s third manager in less than six months when Jimmy Brown’s short spell in charge ended in September, with just ONE point collected from nine league games.
The on-pitch problems had started when Paul Kirk was amazingly sacked at the end of last season, despite guiding the Whites to fourth in the league and into Europe for the third time in four years.
Players like leading goalscorer Curtis Allen and Ryan McCann left and other than a spectacular swoop to sign Glenn Ferguson, after he was released by Linfield, the players Brown brought in didn’t measure up to those who left.
It was all a far cry from the 1960s when as champions, with England legend Tom Finney guesting, they faced mighty Benfica and drew 3-3 at Grosvenor Park.
Just four weeks ago the Whites sat 12 points adrift at the bottom and looked doomed.
But from out of the depths of despair came hope with a stunning 3-1 win at Coleraine. Since then they have gone from strength to strength.
Distillery are now on an unbeaten run of five games — with four wins in that time — which has lifted them above Institute. Not even league leaders Linfield have managed more points in that time.
It’s championship-winning form that Distillery are showing as they pull off a great escape that even Harry Houdini would have envied in his heyday.
“I’d thought all along that if we could get ourselves on a run then we could move off the bottom,” said former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Wright.
“Doing that was a different prospect because it seemed that every time we won a game Institute did as well and we couldn’t narrow the gap.
“We went up to Coleraine and at that stage with 12 points to make up I think the players started to feel that we were doomed and with the pressure off they started to play with a bit of freedom and performed like I always knew they could.
“Since then we’ve been unbeaten, confidence has come back and the players have shown great character to respond like they have done. We’ve been starting games well, have taken the lead and gone on to win each time, which has made a huge difference.
“The financial situation isn’t an issue. The players agreed to defer wages as part of the club going into administration and to take a pay cut until such times as the ground is sold when they’ll get the full amount.”
Not surprisingly Ferguson (right) has been instrumental in the revival, scoring the kind of goals that have made him a feared marksman over the last two decades, and providing tremendous leadership qualities on and off the pitch.
“I don’t like to single Glenn out, but I seem to have been doing that over the last few weeks,” said Wright.
“He has been a big part of the run we’ve been on and gets attention because he’s 40, but it’s a real team effort and we’ve players like Peter McCann, David McAlinden and Stuart Thompson who have all been playing through injuries.”
So what now for the Whites who host Ballymena United in the Carling Premiership tonight.
“If we were to finish eighth or ninth it would be remarkable considering where we’ve come from in a short space of time,” says Wright.
“I’d settle for 11th at the moment though.”