Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Plan A has well and truly come together for Larne

On the up: Larne’s players get the party started at Inver Park on Saturday
On the up: Larne’s players get the party started at Inver Park on Saturday

By Billy Weir

The renowned philosopher Col. John Hannibal Smith often opined: 'I love it when a plan comes together' and, while there was no black van parked menacingly outside Inver Park on Saturday, there was a feeling that the first mission had been well and truly completed.

No milk was needed to be quaffed to get this one off the ground, just hard cash from millionaire owner and Purple Bricks magnate Kenny Bruce - but that is only part of the story.

Saturday was my second trip of the season to see Larne and, like the first one, Ballinamallard United were the visitors to try and poop the party, and much has changed for both sides since.

The Mallards went into freefall after that 1-0 defeat in August. Nine games were lost in a row but, incredibly, Harry McConkey not only achieved a minor miracle in somehow getting them into the top six but had also guided them to the semi-final of the Tennent's Irish Cup, something Larne just missed out on.

They will have their day in the sun, but Saturday and the whole season has belonged to the Invermen.

To return to a theme, in 2008 a crack unit was sent to the B Division for a crime they didn't commit. Or, in other words, the restructuring of the divisions meant they didn't make the cut for the new 12-team Premier League.

They didn't have to escape from a maximum security stockade but were in serious danger of going underground before Bruce, ably supported by Chairman Gareth Clements, came to the rescue.

Yes, some will point the finger and say the players are soldiers of fortune, but that doesn't tell the whole tale.

Players of the ilk of Marty Donnelly, Chris Ramsey, Conor Devlin and Tomas Cosgrove - who could all have their pick of Premiership teams - and men like Davy McDaid, Shane McEleney, Thomas Stewart, who had plenty of options on both sides of the border, and 'blow-ins' like Fuad Sule and Ben Tilney, who have been a breath of fresh air.

Sule is a prime example of how a club that looked doomed has been re-energised. Born in Nigeria, he moved to Dublin when he was three and cut his footballing teeth in the Crumlin United academy that has produced so many players over the years.

Stints with Shamrock Rovers and St Pat's Athletic didn't quite work out as planned, but he shone at Bohemians, earning a move across the water to League Two side Barnet.

One substitute appearance was all he mustered before a move on loan made him a cult hero, the Kante of the east coast signing a permanent deal and making Larne his home.

The affection of the crowd, a whopping 1,301 of them, showering down on him when he left the field with his and Larne's job well and truly done with 10 minutes to go was heart-warming.

He played his part in the win, his inch-perfect 'pass' (or mis-hit shot) allowing twinkle-toed Tilney to add the third goal of the first-half.

The two men vying for the golden boot, Donnelly and McDaid, had both netted again but, with the crowd willing Sule to score, he may have missed the target but afterwards celebrated as if he was born and bred in Millbrook.

"It's terrific for the club and everyone in the town to win the league so early and I'm buzzing," he told me to backdrop of cheering fans and a beating drum long after the final whistle, with a 'Champions' scarf draped around his neck.

"Honest to God, when my agent first rang me about Larne, I didn't even know if it was a place or not!

"To be fair, since I have been here they have been unbelievable, top facilities, top training, the lads are great and the town has been fantastic.

"I just live down the road from the stadium, I am in the town and the community and can see fans, and even when you're out having a cup of tea they are all talking about football."

The fact that Jeff Hughes was named man of the match on Saturday shows the ambition this club has. The hometown boy has returned to his roots, a successful career spent in the lower leagues of the English professional game and a couple of Northern Ireland caps to his name, fitting reward for the 33-year-old.

He makes this team tick, pulling the strings in midfield and, with a good career behind him, could easily have come home and gone through the motions, but not a bit of it.

"When you've seen what's been here for so long, it was hard to envisage this day and all that's going on with the club," he said on Saturday.

"When you talk to Kenny, you really start to believe and he's kept every promise he has made."

And while the celebrations were still in full swing, there was the sense that one chapter was finishing but a whole new book was about to be penned.

Some of those celebrating on Saturday won't be there next season, that is the harsh reality of football and sentiment cannot play a part in that.

Manager Tiernan Lynch was the man with the best and worst job in Irish League football. Win and everyone will say it was the money, lose and he would have been given the chop, but while the dosh has undoubtedly been a factor, he puts it down to much more than that.

"All you have to do is come to our training any day and see the amount of time, effort and commitment is put in on a daily basis," he told me.

"I don't accept it is just the money, when you see what these boys do, that's the difference.

"We're very proud of what we've achieved, and people say 'it's only the Championship' but you can only beat what is in front of you.

"We play very attractive football and the fans have been unbelievable with us this year and we have given them something back.

"They are our 12th man and we've been getting crowds of 800, 900, 1000, 1100 all season for a Championship team and it is incredible.

"We have a phenomenal culture here at Larne Football Club and it's not money. That only gets you so far. If you talk to any of the players and ask them what playing for Larne means to them, I guarantee the last thing they will talk about is money."

There are a lot of good people at Larne Football Club, men like Ian Cahoon, Andy Scullion and many, many more who kept the faith when all about them were losing theirs.

And while Hughes is one hometown hero, another is Gareth Clements the chairman who, working under Bruce, came back home to help lead the Red and White Army back to where they belong.

"It has been a roller-coaster over the season and for the last three weeks especially," he said with a puff of his cheeks and a well-earned beverage in his hand.

"We brought 600 fans to the Welders and were 2-0 up with 60 minutes gone and it was in the bag, and it transpired that Carrick had won and we were standing looking at each other wondering what we do next.

"Last Friday night, the highs and lows, being 2-0 up, 3-2 up and so near, yet so far, and coming today I didn't know what to expect, but there were 1300 fans here and you see the family atmosphere we've created.

"We knew we had a lot of hard yards to do in the Championship when we came in. The first week we came in, Inver Park was closed and we had to play away, then we went to the Welders and I watched the game in disguise really and we lost 6-0.

"I was dejected when we won 2-0 at the Welders two weeks ago but somebody said think back to where you were 18 months ago to where we are now and it's a credit to Tiernan and the boys.

"We've always said it was a journey. Yes, it was about football but, for Kenny and for me, it was about trying to re-energise the town and get the townsfolk reunited and behind the football club. That's what we've done.

"We know we're really only on the runway and there is so much more to give and to do. It starts now. We have to strengthen, and Tiernan and Kenny talk on a regular basis. We've seen our deficiencies in a couple of games against Premier League opposition.

"We know we need to strengthen our panel, we have a great bunch of boys at the moment who have taken us up, but it's a big step up and we're going in with our eyes wide open.

"We're not going up to make up the numbers, we're going up to make a statement and try and do the club proud."

In fairness, you have already done that. The next few chapters are going to be jam-packed with twists and turns but I can, at this point, only refer to the words of Lieutenant Templeton Arthur Peck, or Faceman, if you prefer.

"Look to this day, for yesterday is but dream and tomorrow is but a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope."

Couldn't have put it better myself. Now, I must drink up my milk.

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