Last season Larne finished fourth in the Irish Premiership, 14 points behind champions Linfield and nine adrift of runners-up Coleraine. With one set of league fixtures remaining this season, Larne are fifth, 21 points behind the Blues and 20 adrift of second-placed Cliftonville.
The Larne from nowhere to somewhere story, bankrolled by hometown boy made good Kenny Bruce, with Inver Park transformed and the whole town behind the club is one of the most uplifting in Northern Ireland sport but while off the field progress has been rapid, it has grinded to a halt on the pitch, begging the question: Why?
Is it because manager Tiernan Lynch is unable to take Larne to that next level? Or is it down to their full-time players underperforming when the going gets tough?
There’s another point to consider. Is too much being expected of Larne too soon?
After all, with the greatest respect, the east Antrim outfit aren’t a traditional giant name in Irish League football, like a Glentoran or Linfield, and before the co-founder of Purplebricks turned up, their only senior trophy was the Ulster Cup.
Since then, they have won the Championship and the County Antrim Shield twice, retaining it this term with a 1-0 victory over Linfield in the final courtesy of a Tomas Cosgrove goal having defeated Glentoran on penalties in the previous season’s decider.
Winning the Shield is all well and good yet these days, as a club and a fanbase, Larne want more and with the incredibly generous investment of Bruce in quality players, they should be getting it.
At the start of the season, Larne were viewed as genuine title contenders. Quite right too. They beefed up an already strong squad in the summer with the arrivals of Rohan Ferguson, Ben Doherty and Navid Nasseri and in January signed coveted striker Lee Bonis.
With two campaigns in the top flight under their belt after promotion, Larne also had experience of what was required to compete at this level.
Throw in the team’s brilliant performances in their first venture into Europe and no wonder the Inver Park faithful were excited and optimistic.
It seems like light years ago now but in the Europa Conference League, they beat Welsh side Bala Town home and away before producing a stunning result to defeat Denmark’s Aarhus 2-1 in Larne and earn a 1-1 draw in Scandinavia to triumph 3-2 on aggregate.
In the next round, they were knocked out 4-1 overall by Pacos de Ferreira but not before overcoming the Portuguese outfit 1-0 at Inver with an outstanding display to maintain an unbeaten home record in continental competition.
Lynch’s tactics were superb and his players excelled giving them belief they could take that European form into the league campaign and be in the mix at the finish.
The truth is they haven’t been anywhere close to the top for months. The dream of owner Bruce is to hear the Champions League music played at his fabulous new stadium but Larne are miles off that at the moment.
Last season there was a sense that the team was building towards something special. You fancied them to qualify for Europe through the play-offs and that’s exactly what they did.
This term you don’t know which side will turn up when we get to that stage. The squad is full of top notch performers like Cosgrove, Conor Devlin, Albert Watson, Kofi Balmer, Jeff Hughes, Fuad Sule, John Herron, Andrew Mitchell, Lee Lynch plus ace marksmen Davy McDaid and Bonis but as a collective they are so inconsistent — just 16 wins from 37 Premiership games tells a tale.
At times in post match press briefings, Lynch has cut an exasperated figure at individual errors that have cost his team valuable points. To be fair to him, he has taken responsibility for the poor results and admitted the fans deserve much better.
During this campaign there have been frank discussions between the players and management in a bid to find a formula to put things right. Clearly they are still searching, though since the split at least they have stopped conceding silly goals. They just aren’t scoring any now.
If Larne qualify for Europe through the play-offs again, they will finish a desperately disappointing league season on a high. If not, soul searching is required from Bruce and the board about their direction of travel.
Lots of bosses, in and out of work. are hovering around, keeping an eye on the situation at a club they feel has vast potential.
They should be advised Kenny has a close relationship with Tiernan. They have become like brothers and the owner has publicly backed his manager on numerous occasions. Behind closed doors though, both men will know improvements are needed if ambitions are to be met.
Larne have come a long way, and Lynch, appointed boss in 2017, deserves much credit for that, but they don’t want to stop now and be a team that settles for fifth.