Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Derby day blues could prove a blessing in disguise for Larne

Jonny is good: Move over Becks, Jonny Addis has stolen your thunder
Jonny is good: Move over Becks, Jonny Addis has stolen your thunder
Mark Randall

By Billy Weir

There was a definite whiff of something in the air as I gambolled ever closer to Inver Park on Saturday.

Was it something unfortunate in the Harbour, or perhaps the aroma of the rather tasty-looking burger the Larne fan ahead of me was devouring? No.

It was the whiff of expectation.

Two wins out of two on their return to the big time had put Larne into dreamland, sitting proudly on top of the Danske Bank Premiership with early thoughts that they would canter towards the title just as they did in the second tier last season.

I am no stranger to Inver Park - well, certainly no stranger than my visits of last year - but I was interested to see how things were developing on and off the pitch as owner Kenny Bruce's masterplan is implemented brick by purple brick.

Behind the scenes things have carried on from last season, the new fan zone puts the majority of the league to shame and plans have been passed for a new stand at the church end of the ground that would make it a fabulous venue.

No disrespect to Warrenpoint Town, the opening day visitors to Inver Park, this was the real return of big-time football to the ground, a first league derby with Ballymena United since 2008.

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Andy Scullion, the editor of the excellent official matchday programme and a dyed in the wool Larne fan since the days when there weren't just as many flocking to the ground, summed up nicely just how things have changed in his editorial on Saturday.

"They (the team) played the sort of football you'd gladly pay to watch, and that well over 1,000 Larne fans did so is genuinely incredible," he said.

"That is an important point. A lot is made of Kenny Bruce's investment and no one is denying that what has happened at the club would have been possible without that investment.

"What no one would have predicted, though, is how much the town has been inspired and engaged by the club's progress. A perfect storm has brewed at the club. What we have is a club and a town down on its luck, starved of success for a long time with a successful businessman coming back to invest and rescue his hometown club. "

There is nothing nicer as an unexcused fan of the game here to get to a ground early and watch bums filling seats. There was a wonderful hubbub around the place and so good to see so many little kids - and quite a few bigger ones - bedecked in Larne regalia.

Ballymena played their part too. Like the Larne success, Messrs David Jeffrey and Bryan McLoughlin have a merry band of men and women behind them as they too have breathed new life into the sleeping dwarf that was the Sky Blues.

Last year's incredible season will be tough to replicate, especially with the race for the top nine, never mind the top six, looking near impossible to call.

United sold out their allocation of 600 tickets, United's vice-chairman, all-round good guy and recent octogenarian, Don Stirling, proudly showing me an empty envelope with the last few of the prized tickets snapped up with minutes to spare.

So we had a crowd heading towards 2,000 for just the third match of the season and it was eerily quiet as time ticked around to 3pm, that whiff of excited expectation replaced by one of nervous apprehension.

It was soon to be replaced by open-mouthed amazement as Jonny Addis, from inside his own half, launched a missile that sailed through the air, over the despairing flaps of Conor Devlin and ripped into the rigging.

Did he mean it? Who knows, or cares really, as it was a mesmerising piece of football and 23 years to the day since someone called David Beckham did something rather similar for Man United.

There is absolutely no truth that Jonny is now insisting on a throne being built in the dressing room, has requested the No.23 shirt and was spotted dandering around Carrick in just a sarong.

The air was coming out of the Larne balloon, but they kept playing their football, Mark Randall and Jeff Hughes pulling the strings in the middle of the park.

Let's just take a mo to revisit that statement. That is former Northern Ireland man Jeff Hughes and Mark Randall, who used to knock about with Cesc Fabregas and the like when he was a kid at Arsenal. That's how far we have come.

It was fitting that Randall scored a fantastic goal made the Larne way, bursting through to get on the end of a wonderful passing move and finishing with the cool precision of a deadly assassin for his third goal in as many games.

But they aren't the finished article yet. Plan A is a joy to watch, they pass and move and almost buzz around as much as the plague of wasps that seemed to fall in love with the press corridor, although that may have been to do with some of my associates' aftershave or perfume of choice. Changing times...

Jeffrey and McLoughlin leave no stone or piece of 4G unturned, they knew exactly how to combat the threats of those two and to stifle the creative talents of men like Marty Donnelly and Ben Tilney, and their players did it superbly.

Andy McGrory tapped home to give United the lead at the break and as Larne chairman Gareth Clements told the collective boards, whose company we were invited to join for a cuppa at the break, the next goal was going to be crucial. And so it proved.

There looked to be little danger as a high cross-field ball was headed down but Cathair Friel, rather than lash wildly at it first time, teed it up superbly and with the outside of his right foot volleyed it into the goal behind which the United hordes congregated.

A fourth goal was to come before the hour and it was a clinker, part a plan coming off perfectly and part class. Starved of outlets, Albert Watson was forced to play out of the defence. He could only find Friel, who set Jude Winchester free and from the edge of the box he thumped in an unstoppable shot.

The wheels were coming off, the Sky Blue fans were pinching themselves that they'd been given free access to the Ballymena Show, while Larne's fans were thinking, 'This wasn't how it was supposed to be'.

To their credit and the team's, they didn't throw the towel in. Manager Tiernan Lynch went a little more direct themselves with Lee Lynch in particular impressing on his cameo from the bench and former United hero Johnny McMurray coming on to score.

It didn't feel like much of a consolation then or now to be honest but for Larne it could be the crucial start of a Plan B. Championship teams simply hadn't the quality to deal with them, but teams like Ballymena do and they have to adapt quickly to ensure they keep progressing.

They will not abandon their principles, on or off the pitch, Watson, one of the game's proper players, chatting to me afterwards, and being typically honest in his appraisal of how things had gone.

"You have to take your medicine. If you want to play like that and that's the way Tiernan wants us to play, you have to be prepared to have the guts to get on the ball and take the pressure and have the movement we need and that's what we will continue to do," he vowed.

It may seem perverse, but this defeat could be a blessing in disguise. A third win on the trot and expectation levels would have been higher than the roof of the block of flats just across from the ground.

The man who punctured those hopes was mightily impressed, though, by Larne's playing mantra and is delighted that they are back in the big time.

"Tiernan and the rest of the staff deserve a lot of credit because they pass the ball about quickly, they are very well organised, their rotation of play is most impressive and the reality is that if you don't try and keep a shape and a discipline, they will over-run you," Jeffrey said.

"To see the progress is fantastic, not just the club but for the town. The size of the crowd today? Whoever thought that a Larne-Ballymena United game would produce such entertainment and bring so many people in? On this occasion it has been our day, but it has also been a great day for Irish League football."

Lynch and his team will work hard to implement that Plan B. They will have to be quick as up next is a trip to Seaview to face Crusaders who have started off with three wins on the bounce and have yet to concede a goal. It should be a cracker.

Linfield should have been given helping hand in Euro bid

Tonight is arguably the biggest match in the long, glittering history of Linfield Football Club as Azerbaijan side Qarabag visit Windsor Park for the first leg of their Europa League play-off.

A win over two legs would put David Healy's men into the group stages, the first time this would ever be achieved by a team from these shores, and all fans here, despite their own allegiances, have to be fully behind them.

What is a mammoth task was not helped by the powers-that-be not taking the bull by the horns and giving the Blues a helping hand by postponing last weekend's game with Coleraine to give them as much time as they could to prepare.

They have already had an arduous European adventure and the Bannsiders made the most of that with a smash and grab raid to deservedly take the three points home.

It was typical, though, of Coleraine boss Oran Kearney that he could see the bigger picture.

"I'm not saying it was punishment for Linfield having to play the game, but in the circumstances I would have rearranged," he said.

"All the talk is about improving the league's co-efficient so I wouldn't have objected to the game being put back to a later date, just to give them the best possible chance of going further in Europe. The last thing they needed was this game stuck in the middle of it."

He is 100 per cent correct. We, as a league, need success at this level and despite whatever side you follow, let us all hope that the Blues can do us proud tonight.

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