Ards homing in on a bright future ahead of cup final
Ahead of tonight's JBE League Cup final between Cliftonville and Ards, Graham Luney looks at how the North Down club have come through financial storms and continue to search for a stadium they can call home.
The Ards Football Club story has everything. Everything, that is, apart from a happy ending... but the fight goes on.
Tonight the club will enjoy a taste of the big time when they wrestle with Cliftonville in the JBE League Cup final at Solitude (5.30pm).
A tortured history leaves them without a ground they can call home but the North Down men are desperate to turn the page on a dark past and prove they can live with the big beasts in the Irish League jungle.
The club, which began in 1900 when local workers began playing on a ground which is now Newtownards airport, has had more than its fair share of turbulence.
The famous old Castlereagh Park stadium had to be sold in 1998 to ease mounting debts.
Ards were planning to build a new home on a former landfill site on ground known as The Floodgates on the Portaferry Road but by early 2015 it emerged that Ards Borough Council had withdrawn its lease offer. Funds were lost and a business plan went up in smoke. It felt like there was no hope.
It was a devastating blow to the club and their loyal supporters who have travelled to Ballyclare's Dixon Park, Cliftonville's Solitude, Taylors Avenue in Carrick and now the Bangor Fuels Arena to follow their team.
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In 2009, supporters launched a campaign, 'Bring Ards FC Home', but they are still dreaming.
Many of us have cherished memories of walking down the Portaferry Road but clubs are businesses and when the money disappears they can strike a financial iceberg and go under. Ards have been rocked by relegation, crippling debts and a nomadic existence but they are still alive and kicking. And still loved by many.
Club chairman Brian Adams answered a cry for help in 2003 and what he found was a club in a real mess.
"There was no question the club was fighting for it's survival," said Adams, a former Abbey Villa player and manager.
"I looked at the set-up and my first reaction was 'Oh my God'. I hastily assembled a rescue committee and we had to work our way through a takeover and recovery period.
"Nobody knew where the money went from the ground sale and we were dealing with debts of around £250,000 as well as having no ground.
"Looking back, it was a horrendous situation. Shane Reddish was our manager and we were going to hotels to have lunch on match days and the hotels were saying we owed them money. We hadn't even paid for the tea and sandwiches!
"So many people were owed money from the Social Club to rates bills, Guinness, Sky and the phone lines were switched off.
"The club was fighting for its existence. In the first six months of us trying to sort out the mess we must have faced 10 court cases. Managers and other Irish League clubs were owed money.
"We needed two things to happen - we had to try and get some stability and secondly, we had to get some credibility back. We went around businesses, asked them how much we owed them and we paid off debts.
"Players, some on big wages, had to be let go. One player was on £400 a week - it was ridiculous.
"Eventually we got ourselves clear of debt four years ago and we have stability now but you don't forget the moments like in the 2003-2004 season when we were asked to pay £20,000 by the Premier League to be able to play."
Ards' colourful history contains painful chapters but many golden moments too such as the 1957/58 Irish League winning side along with Irish Cup triumphs in 1926/27, 1951/52, 1968/69 and 1973/74.
In the 1957-58 campaign they fought a tense battle with Glenavon but 16 victories out of 22 matches was enough to seal title glory and a European Cup date with Stade de Reims, whose side included France legend Just Fontaine.
There was also the glorious night in September 1973 when Standard Liege were defeated in a Uefa Cup tie at Castlereagh Park.
That campaign saw Ards win their greatest haul of four trophies under player-manager Billy Humphries.
A proud history but how could they be confident of a prosperous future without a stadium they can call home?
"Getting suitable land is the hard part," added Adams, who is also vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Football League.
"In the last eight years we have tried to secure seven different sites but each has fallen through for various reasons, be it planning, green belt or rates issues. Last year we looked at two sites on the Comber Road and one in Conlig. We will not give up the search. We are still pursuing other avenues in Ards.
"Everyone makes fun of us regarding the lack of a stadium but despite the setbacks, while I am here Ards Football Club will not disappear. If we have to travel to watch the team we will but there is enough passion to ensure the club will continue to exist."
Now top of Championship One, under the guidance of boss Niall Currie, their dream of a return to the Premiership stage is alive. They won't let past setbacks destroy an ambitious outlook.
"In the bad days it was a weekly fight for survival," said Adams. "The difference between then and now is night and day. In the last five years we have enjoyed some success, the crowds have returned and we are playing our home matches in Bangor, only six miles from Ards.
"We have a new Social Club in the centre of Newtownards, a development plan has been drawn up and we have an Academy with more than 250 kids aged from five through to under-19s. We have our Championship and domestic licence, our finances are in order and we have an army of 32 volunteers that keep the club going strong."
Currie is well aware of the difficulties of guiding a team that doesn't have their own home but he's hopeful of better days ahead.
"This is a club with a great tradition, history and fan base - as good as many clubs - but we need the important people to make the right decisions and make sure Ards Football Club is playing its home matches in Ards," he said. "Our fans have been wonderful and they deserve it. We will not give up hope.
"Castlereagh Park was one of the best pitches in the country and there is nothing I want more than to see the Ards boys training and playing in a new home in Newtownards."
Newtownards Town Hall was lit up in red and blue last night ahead of tonight's final.
Here's to a bright future, with the dark days a fading memory.