Belfast Telegraph

Institute FC back in big time and feeling at home in the Brandywell

By Leona O'Neill

It is a story of triumph over adversity.

After the most challenging 12 months of their 113-year history, Institute Football Club are back in the big time of Irish League football.

When floods devastated the club's Riverside Stadium last August, leaving them homeless, many wrote them off.

But they battled on, won the Championship, and on Saturday will kick off the new season in the Danske Bank Premiership.

In a move that will strengthen cross-community relations in the city, Institute will use Derry City's Brandywell Stadium as their home ground this season.

They were there on Saturday for a friendly with their new landlords, who play in the League of Ireland.

It will be the first time in almost half-a-century that the Brandywell has hosted Irish League football. The excitement and pre-season optimism is a far cry from last summer when members stood with tears as their home ground lay under 7ft of water.

But, as Institute have shown, nothing can destroy a fighting spirit.

This weekend they will play their first game back in the top division against Newry City AFC, a team who are no strangers to challenges themselves. Newry rose from the ruins of their predecessor's bankruptcy and have battled their way through the divisions to the Premiership.

Saturday's match will be a fierce battle between two underdogs in a match that defied the odds to even happen.

Institute chairman Bill Anderson said his boys have come a long way from the distraught group who thought their dreams had been destroyed alongside their stadium.

"Last August I got a call about the flooding," he said.

"I went down, kind of naively with a shovel, welly boots and a brush to help with a clean-up operation.

"When I got there I just had to sit down at the top of the hill overlooking the stadium.

"And as I looked out over the ground I thought to myself: Where do we go from here? It was absolute carnage. There were salmon in the dugout.

"At that point we had to take a few days to gather ourselves."

The following Friday Institute played Ballyclare and got hammered 6-1.

"Coming back up on the bus was like a morgue," Mr Anderson recalled.

"Halfway up on that journey I decided to myself that we either look at this as an opportunity or a disaster and, depending on our perspective, it will determine how we will go forward.

"So I stated this to the lads and the board and we decided to look at it as an opportunity.

"Then things started happening on the pitch.

"The boys started playing really well, putting results together. That lifted the club."

Paddy McLaughlin (37), a former Institute player and now their manager, said the team are proud of their underdog tag.

He said: "Everyone had us written off. People were saying the team was finished and we wouldn't stand a chance.

"We tried to use that as a motivational tool and it worked well for us.

"We had nothing to lose. We wanted to prove people wrong. You cannot credit the players enough because that is what they did week in and week out over the course of the season.

"The league table doesn't lie. They proved their worth and proved they were the best team in the Championship last year."

Defender Caoimhin Bonner (25) signed for the club the week the floods hit.

He said: "I think the whole thing brought the team together. Everyone is just so tight, the worst had already happened. We had nothing to lose. We just went out there and did it."

Fellow centre-back Mark Scoltock (33) added: "It has been amazing to see everyone come together and be so successful in the face of adversity.

"Using The Brandywell as our home ground shows a change in the times of Northern Ireland, politically, between the two sides.

"It's brilliant to have the opportunity to be able to share such a good facility.

"I think, 10 years ago, it might not have been able to happen.

"It shows a great confidence in our future and a change in outlooks."

Forty-one-old Shauna Doherty, who coaches the Institute FC under-11 team, said the fighting spirit of the players had inspired the younger squad.

"It is an amazing achievement," she said.

"From losing everything and coming back and winning the Championship has been amazing.

"This fighting spirit shown by the team really inspires those coming up behind them."

Glenavon player Niall Grace (25) was in the stands to see his former team step out at The Brandywell on Saturday.

"It does the heart good to see them out there on the pitch today," he said.

"I hope they do well this season. Obviously not against Glenavon!"

Supporter Sharon Conor (46) from Kilfennan said she admired the spirit of the team.

"I've been a supporter of Institute for a number of years," she said.

"I think the team really bonded over the flooding and they have a really good manager. I think their spirit is so strong and it got them here."

Robert Curry (55) and his dad Harry came together to watch The Brandywell charity match.

"I have supported Institute for 30-odd years," said Robert.

"To see them going back onto the pitch at The Brandywell is brilliant.

"Hopefully this is just a stop-gap and we get our own ground and go home again."

His father Harry (78) said: "My two grandsons play for the team and my brother Billy played for them 50 years ago. Our family are steeped in Institute history.

"When the flooding happened I thought everything was all over because there was nowhere to go. I'm delighted to see them back on top."

Derry City manager Kenny Shiels is very happy to share their ground with Institute.

"I think it's fantastic because it's the one city, it's a city that has the population to accommodate two teams, I'm sure," he said.

"It's a football-mad city.

"It's great to see Institute here playing and having a pastoral home like ourselves."

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