Billy Weir: Paddy McLaughlin has the power to take Cliftonville to the top
I still remember well my first encounter with Paddy McLaughlin on a sun-baked spring day at Tillysburn Park back in 2007.
I realise this may be the first and only time the words 'sun-baked' and 'Tillysburn Park' have appeared in the same sentence but it was a memorable day and it has stuck with me.
I had gone along because Institute were at the Welders to see if they could, for the first time, win promotion to the then Carnegie Premier League.
Under Liam Beckett they had built a reputation of free-flowing, pass and move football, but also, much like the manager himself, a fair bit of steel and belligerence in the back line, something typified by McLaughlin.
Alongside McLaughlin in that defence was David Ogilby, later, like the new Cliftonville boss, to become a favourite at Coleraine, plus the likes of Eamonn Seydak, Mark Scoltock and Graeme Philson, names that will figure large in any future tomes written about Institute's remarkable rise.
I remember striding (striding may be stretching it, shuffling perhaps) onto the hallowed turf to catch a word with the manager who was involved in what can only be described as a spot of man-love with his skipper.
When it broke up, I grabbed a word with McLaughlin, and was struck by how he had taken the magnitude of clinching a spot at the top table for the Drumahoe men, but his thoughts turned to how nearest challengers, Bangor, had done and the resolve to go on and clinch the title.
They did just that the next week I think, against Banbridge, but not for the first time his performances at 'Stute had caught the eye of bigger fish and he was soon away to Finn Harps before a move to Coleraine.
The highlight of his spell came in 2008 when he scored in the Irish Cup final in the 2-1 defeat by Linfield before another brief stint back in Ballybofey, before a return to 'Stute where he hung up his boots in 2015.
He cut his managerial teeth under Kevin Deery and, when he left, the former Derry City defender moved upstairs and began to lay the foundations for the much-vaunted side that now wears the sky blue.
Of course, that is only part of the story. It's hard enough to make your way in management without having some incredible obstacles way beyond football's control thrown at you.
The floods that decimated the Riverside Stadium and the subsequent outbreak of Japanese Knotweed that now leaves the venue a desolate shell that cannot be used would have been enough to sink any other club.
So to go on and gain promotion to the Danske Bank Premiership last season, having played only one game at home, is remarkable.
Again, another obstacle. Promotion gained, but where to play now with Wilton Park in Londonderry not able to meet the standards needed for the top level?
Moves to play home games at The Oval and Dixon Park were mooted, while a move from the Waterside to the Bogside and The Brandywell, something that would not have been thought possible a few short years ago, looked like a pipe dream.
But being from Creggan and with his links to the Candystripes as a player, that dream became a reality and, as we speak, little homeless and destitute Institute are sitting pretty in seventh spot in the Danske Bank Premiership. And their brand of attacking football was not going unnoticed, especially up at Cliftonville where Barry Gray's time was coming to an end.
Seeing off the likes of Kenny Shiels and Warren Feeney at the interview stage shows just how impressive his audition was and I still maintain that on his CV should have been 'Manager of the Year 2018' given just what he achieved with Institute that year.
And isn't it funny how history repeats itself. Like his old boss Beckett, he has made the move from 'Stute to Solitude and employment at Ireland's oldest club.
On paper it is swapping seventh for sixth in the table but they are two very different animals, as McLaughlin is likely to discover.
There have been problems, of a very different kind, for the Reds to deal with off the pitch and the new manager's task is not only to galvanise what is surely the most exciting collection of striking talent at anyone's disposal in the league but also add that bit of steely defensive determination that has seen their title challenge fade into a whimper.
He has already made changes to the way things are organised regarding training and recovery. He has also made the very wise move of bringing Brian Donaghey and Conleth McCrudden with him - always good to have a few allies on your side when you're a man from up the country trying to make it in the big smoke, especially at somewhere called Solitude.
And he certainly let his new players know in no uncertain terms what he expected of them on their first meeting.
"I told the chairman to make sure the players brought their boots because I'm not just here to have my photograph taken," he said.
"I'm here to do a job and that starts here and now. That changing room is full of quality players, some of them would walk into any team in Ireland, and we need to prepare well this week, go into the Newry game on Saturday and try to start by getting three points."
Message received and understood he will hope.
He won't fix things overnight. He has struck it lucky with having Niall Grace, who served him so well at Institute, signing on loan from Glenavon, and any team with Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly in it is going to be a threat.
As for Institute? Well, it is another big blow and they took another thump to the solar plexus in the aftermath of McLaughlin's departure with the news that star player, captain and top scorer Michael McCrudden has not only signed for Derry City on a pre-contract but has indicated he has played his last game for 'Stute, angered that he wasn't allowed to join his boyhood heroes in January.
That's a mess, but hardly the first Institute have had to deal with in recent times, but whoever takes over the reins will hope that they have enough points on the board to buy themselves a little time to rebuild for next season.
But the final words should go to McLaughlin. It's hardly likely to be sun-baked at Solitude on Saturday but that steely determination will be.
"When you have the opportunity to come somewhere like this, you have to take it. It's the sort of club players should be breaking the door down to sign for," he said.
And managers too, for that matter.
Move over Watergate, Wardengate makes bigger splash
It doesn't put me up there alongside Mystic Meg or Russell Grant - despite the physical similarities to the latter - in the soothsayer stakes, but my doom-mongering last week of no action at the Ballymena Showgrounds this week came all too true.
Frost put paid to Saturday's planned Tennent's Irish Cup clash between Ballymena United and Portadown and, when the thaw came, lashing rain coupled with an already saturated pitch put paid to Tuesday's Co Antrim Shield Final.
What happens next for the latter is now being discussed between the final protagonists, Linfield and Crusaders, but how anyone with even the slightest titter of wit thought that Warden Street in its current state was fit to host a final is beyond me.
I still await a response to my enquiry to Mid and East Antrim Council as to just how a pitch that was only laid in the summer can be in such a bad state of repair that it has caused seven matches to be postponed (it was only five when I contacted them), with five senior games and two from the local league being called off.
Not a word, until the bigger red face of having a final cancelled finally got them to poke their head up and issue the following statement to the media on Tuesday.
"We are extremely disappointed and hugely frustrated by the condition of the playing surface," said the council.
"We have launched a full investigation into the current issues in order to find a long-term solution.
"We wanted the pitch at the Showgrounds to be among the very best in Northern Ireland and we are committed to ensuring we will deliver this for the people of Mid and East Antrim."
I am sure you will also reimburse them the £250,000 from their rates that was spent to create this mess.
Cup joy for Larne’s old boys and new ones too
It was a shame that the weather wiped out half of the planned Irish Cup matches last weekend and adds even more pressure to what has been a congested fixture list (summer football anyone?)
Stand out result of the day was Crusaders finally getting the better of Linfield for the first time this season, while holders Coleraine slipped past what could have been a banana skin in the shape of Dergview.
But for me the story of the round came in Larne. Twice.
First up was Larne Tech Old Boys from the Amateur League who made it through to the quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Strabane Athletic from the Intermediate League.
And it was everything the Irish Cup should be, a bumper crowd huddled around the side of the pitch as Johnny Hastings and his men made it through, coupled with some golden comedy sendings-off, and they will now meet the winner of the rearranged game between Warrenpoint Town and Queen’s University.
That is scheduled to be at home and I really hope it is and not switched to Warrenpoint because of their senior status because it takes away so much from the competition.
And the new boys of Larne are also in the last eight, where if Coleraine thought the last round was a banana skin, they’ll think a Fyffes has jack-knifed at Inver Park next time up.
Nailed on to be Championship champions, Tiernan Lynch’s side, who lost out to the Bannsiders in last year’s semi-final, will more than fancy their chances of exacting some revenge.
It will be a much-changed Coleraine they face, Rodney McAree wasting no time in making it ‘his’ team and Tuesday night’s win over Dungannon Swifts means they are now back up to fourth in the table.
Remarkably, only four players in that win turned out for the Bannsiders when they won the Cup back in May, a mixture of departures with the likes of Brad Lyons, Darren McCauley, Ciaron Harkin and Stephen Dooley moving on. And injuries too.
Still, it’s a huge turnaround in playing resources and McAree is well on the way to stepping out from Oran Kearney’s shadow and making the side his own.
A warm welcome back ‘home’ to former Linfield defender Albert Watson as he returns to the local game at Ballymena United, where it all began for him as a 16-year-old many sky blue moons ago. A top player and a top bloke too, it’s great to have him back, although I hope he brought wellies with him from Canada...