Belfast Telegraph

How Larne are making sure that there's something big happening at Inver Park

The club have installed a pitch that's been called 'the best in Ireland' and are working on a lot more improvements as they target the top

By Billy Weir

I think I am on pretty safe ground by suggesting that when Sixties pop combo Buffalo Springfield penned their song For What It's Worth featuring the line 'There's something happening here', they probably didn't have Larne Football Club in mind.

I could be wrong, maybe Neil Young et al hailed from Brown's Bay and the revolutionary hopes expressed in the song were slow in coming, but there's no doubt that if you stop and look around Inver Park, there's certainly something happening.

Saturday was another of those big days on the calendar with a red circle around it. The club's first home game of the Bluefin Sport Championship season saw Ballinamallard United coming to town in the role of arch party-pooper as there was a real carnival about the place.

Strolling into a ground I was last at a decade and a bit ago, there was a real buzz, the Welcome to Larne sign (which some wags suggest should have contained the word 'You're' at the start) is followed by the handiwork of local schools who have been made to feel part of the new Larne FC, from Carnlough to South Carolina, the word has been spread.

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The links are increasing across the globe

To those not in the know, the club was taken over by online property giant Purplebricks owner Kenny Bruce last year and under the guiding hand of chairman Gareth Clements, the aim was European football in three years. Stop sniggering at the back.

To coin a phrase from another Fermanagh man, not connected to the Mallards, Larne were in the gutter but they were looking at the stars and Saturday was another step along the way as a Family Fun Day (no Sammy the Snake in evidence - one for Phoenix Nights fans there) set the scene for the clash with Ballinamallard.

I joined Gareth on a tour around the ground - it still has a long way to go, but the new 4G pitch and 750 newly-installed seats are a big statement of intent, and with floodlights to come in a couple of weeks' time, the future is indeed bright.

"Kenny and I are in since September/October last year, so it has been a massive 10 or 11 months," explained the chairman, taking time out of his hectic schedule ahead of kick-off.

"Even up until a couple of weeks ago people were still sceptical that Kenny was buying it to build houses and no matter what he was doing people still had this in the back of their mind.

"I think we've proven today to everybody now the journey that we're on is serious and committed."

Just how serious is seen in the outlay and the job is just beginning, not at an end.

"Kenny has invested around £2m of his own money in this time, firstly purchasing Inver Park from the local authority and handing it over to a charity to run, to then investing in the club infrastructure, pitch, floodlighting and playing squad to where we are at today.

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Look and Larne: The approach to the ever-changing Inver Park

"Our state of the art floodlights will be erected in the first week of September, our pitch was passed to Fifa Pro standard last Friday, which means we can host internationals or Champions League games here. I'm told the surface is the best in Ireland.

"There are different bits and pieces to do, it's a jigsaw really at the minute, but every week the supporters come back they will see something different, another improvement. Above the changing rooms it is going to become a Players' and VIP members' Lounge. The VIP members who have stuck by the club through the lean years will benefit from this, so it's a reward for them.

"I said when we came in that we were going to improve the levels of professionalism, right from the boardroom to the pitch. All the players have signed up to how they shall behave on and off the pitch, and at boardroom level we have given things a bit of a tweak and shake up.

"I can't say a bad word about any of the board that was here, because they worked so, so hard to keep this club afloat and if Kenny Bruce hadn't come in we'd probably be where Bangor are at the minute and playing in the Ballymena Intermediate League or wherever, that's how close it got."

Of course, the real reward for the ever-growing Inver Army will not be facilities, but improved fortunes on the pitch. There was a glimpse of that last season when they enjoyed a fairytale run to the semi-final of the Tennent's Irish Cup, but the Holy Grail has to be a return to the top league in the land and Gareth readily admits that the F word - failure - will not be entertained.

"There's no other way of looking at it," he stressed.

"I was at the NIFL launch and at every opportunity it was thrown in that we're the Manchester City of the Championship. We're up there to be knocked and will not shirk our responsibilities.

"We believe we've given the manager, his backroom team and the players the tools, we believe we have given them a real sound platform from which to grow and deliver on our expectations. We strongly believe they will grow in stature, confidence and rise to each challenge set in front of them.

"Kenny and I spoke during our initial conversations about what was unfolding at Waterford in the League of Ireland. When Lee Power came in and bought them, he invested in the squad and they were promoted in Year One.

"Now they're pushing for a European spot, they're sitting in third and that shows it can be done. Kenny has this dream that in three years' time, we'll be playing European football and if we don't aspire high, then we'll never achieve. Yes, our ambitions are stretching, but I believe they are eminently achievable.

"We've created a real buzz and a special atmosphere around the town through engaging with the community and encouraging them to come on this journey with us."

Proof of that was the numbers coming through the gates on Saturday. Most startling ideas maybe have a dozen or so disciples following them, so to have 1,171 through the turnstiles is a mind-boggling statistic.

It really is a mantra of 'build it and they will come' but backed by an ambitious business plan in the astute hands of Gavin Clements - no relation to the chairman - who has been busy spreading the word to the local business community.

"The pitch and floodlights cost around £1.2m, £1.3m, we've put in 700 new seats to take our seating capacity to 1,250, and we reckon we'll have 800 or so safe standing spaces too, so from last season having a cap of 400, we're hoping to have around 2,100 this season," explained Gareth, who is surrounded by a merry band of men and women, bedecked in black T-shirts emblazoned with 'STAFF' and all working their you knows whats off for the cause.

"We went around 16 schools, right down through the Glens and up towards Carrick, and we did the town that Larne is twinned with in South Carolina as well, so it has been great.

"The players are going out into the schools, that is part of their commitment, that they have to go out and do a certain amount of hours around schools in Larne.

"It's a community thing and that's Kenny's vision. Yes, it's about football and about success, but it is to try and make the town better. There's a real buzz about the town and if we continue to bring crowds, it is going to bring people into shops and businesses which is going to help the town economically.

"We have a Club Shop now, we've sold an unprecedented number of shirts in the five or six weeks since our kit launch, we went out and have sold our 16 match ball sponsorships, 16 match day sponsorships, 16 players sponsorships at £500 each and this has all been completed weeks before the season starting.

"There's a real business plan here to deliver sustainability within a period of time; the key component of this was bringing Gavin Clements in as full-time Commercial Director. Gavin has a big remit, but through working collectively and collaboratively with Kenny, myself, the board and the manager, he has a chance to deliver."

And therein lies the crux of the matter and what a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of Tiarnan Lynch, who snorts at the suggestion he is the Pep Guardiola of east Antrim, but knows that he has to deliver.

He admits that that brings its own pressure but has to be coupled with patience as his new team adapt to semi-professional life, new surroundings and a new problem - being there to be shot at.

Marty Donnelly made sure that the party was not pooped by Ballinamallard on Saturday, his winning goal producing a sigh of relief that drifted like a mushroom cloud over the top of Inver Park, but it was a tough grind.

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Tiarnan Lynch

"A lot of teams will come here and they'll be happy to take a point and they'll make it difficult by getting numbers behind the ball," the manager explained after the game.

"They're all tough games for us because Larne's a scalp now and everybody is going to come out with their 'A' game and we've just got to deal with that.

"Of course you feel the pressure because a lot of people outside say it's a formality that Larne will win the league this season. That's nonsense.

"I've told the players anything we get out of this year, we'll earn and nobody will hand us anything. Being Larne and having top players doesn't mean anything, you've got to work for it and to be fair they are a top bunch and they work very hard from Monday to Friday.

"I don't think it (increased training) has kicked in yet, because everybody is just back from pre-season and I don't think we'll see the benefits until three or four months in. They're in every day, with double sessions on a Tuesday and Thursday, so it will take a wee bit of time. Hopefully we can keep winning, get momentum and keep the fans here for a season and build on it. "

One of those fans is Graeme Bell and with a name like that he's no stranger to a white-knuckle ride but hopes now that momentum will be uphill rather than down.

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Graeme Bell

"I've been a fan all my life, I came down when I was five or six for my first match in the old wooden stand and I sat in the corner," he said as we overlooked the changing vista by the Inver.

"That was 43-44 years ago. We had the golden period in the 80s, early 90s when we got to a few finals and won the Ulster Cup and had a team that finished fourth in the league. That period was amazing and you had the fans coming out but we've had quite a few dark periods since when the club has been financially strapped and the level of football had greatly decreased.

"It was at rock bottom. Last year we actually brought in students to set up an academy and it was all going to be student players and to be honest it was in my head that we would be relegated last year and quite possibly the club might not even be here.

"But then Kenny Bruce came in with the money. You don't know whether his heart was going to be in it until you've been round the person a while, but you have to take the guy at his word and when you look around he has proved his word."

The final word at the end of a day when he ran the full gamut of emotions goes to the chairman who doesn't sugar coat what he and Kenny Bruce expect.

"The manager is as clear on his objectives as I am on mine, it's a results-based business and we must get the product right on the pitch to ensure the people keep coming through the turnstiles to help take us to where we aspire to be," he added.

"We've got them here, we sold 26 season tickets last season and at the minute we're standing at over 500 so far this term, with over 1,100 in today for our first home game. We must keep them here whilst attracting new and estranged fans in to build on it.

"Kenny has given us the platform and the footing, we all have to work hard now to make it happen. The man is a hard but fair taskmaster, you don't get to where Kenny is through being a shrinking violet."

Shrinking violet or purple bricks, he'll be tickled pink if the Inver Reds finish what he has started. As Mr Springfield suggested there is indeed something happening here, but the difference is Mr Bruce and co are exactly clear on what it is.

Belfast Telegraph

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