We hit rock bottom: How Portadown changed focus in bid to return to Premiership

It looks a very different club to the one that was relegated in 2017

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Portadown manager Matthew Tipton with his 19-year-old captain Luke Wilson (right), midfielder and son George (left) and 25-year-old 'old head' Paddy McNally (front).

Portadown manager Matthew Tipton with his 19-year-old captain Luke Wilson (right), midfielder and son George (left) and 25-year-old 'old head' Paddy McNally (front).

Freddie Parkinson

Portadown manager Matthew Tipton with his 19-year-old captain Luke Wilson (right), midfielder and son George (left) and 25-year-old 'old head' Paddy McNally (front).

It's October 31st, 2015 and Portadown Football Club, as we know it, is on its last legs.

After over 29 years at the helm, the writing's on the wall - quite literally - for manager Ronnie McFall.

As his side are beaten 3-1 by league-leading Crusaders at Shamrock Park, a section of supporters stage a protest with the aim of ousting the long-standing boss.

Even Darren Murray was booed when he celebrated his equalising goal with McFall - a toxic atmosphere with the man who led the club to 20 trophies, including their only four league titles, the principle target.

"The past is yours but the future's mine, you're all out of time. RONNIE OUT", reads the supporters' banner hanging over the edge of the home stand.

And it's not even rock bottom yet.

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A section of Portadown fans made their feelings known towards the end of Ronnie McFall's reign.

A section of Portadown fans made their feelings known towards the end of Ronnie McFall's reign.

A section of Portadown fans made their feelings known towards the end of Ronnie McFall's reign.

An Irish Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of lower league Lurgan Celtic forced McFall to resign just over four months later and still worse was to come when the club was hit with a 12-point deduction for the 16/17 season over a player registration breach.

It was a terminal blow to their hopes of remaining in the top tier but with a stay of execution. It took almost a full year for relegation to be confirmed on the pitch. Death by 12 cuts.

When he took the job in 1986, McFall told the Belfast Telegraph that he would "give the football club back to the town."

Fast forward to his departure and, considering the supporter unrest along with the disciplinary difficulties, history needed to repeat itself.

Now it's February 2020 and during Saturday's 4-0 win over Knockbreda, Shamrock Park looked and sounded a very different place.

Gone is the chorus of dissenting voices. With the inner-workings overhauled, everybody's pulling in the same direction.

As the club's last stint in the Premiership came to an end in 2017, chairman Roy McMahon stepped down after over 20 years on the board, heralding what he called a 'fresh start'.

The likes of Peter Hunniford and Paul Jackson stepped forward as new directors, with Ronnie Stinson returning to the board as chairman.

The fans did their bit to bridge the chasm between the stands and the boardroom by establishing We Are Ports, a membership scheme designed to raise money and give supporters a say, with a representative, currently Gary McNally, on the board.

People just wanted to hear honesty and to know that we all wanted the same thing - to get the club back to the Premiership Peter Hunniford

"The fans were amazing from the start," recalls Hunniford, now the club's Director of Football. "After the AGM when Roy stood down, we had open meetings with supporters and we felt straight away that everybody was willing to help.

"We were very open and honest about where we were as a club and the fans appreciated that. We didn't feel like we had any resistance, everybody wanted to work together and that has happened.

"There was refinancing of debt and things as well so we were prepared for a lengthy project in terms of getting stability back but people just wanted to hear honesty and to know that we all wanted the same thing - to get the club back to the Premiership."

Saturday's win over Knockbreda is the biggest indication yet that the aim is about to be met. As Ballinamallard fell to defeat at Newry City, the hosts' late goal incited one of the biggest cheers of the day at Shamrock Park and the Ports went seven points clear.

"Hopefully this is it now," says one fan as the chorus of 'we are going up' warranted only a rather sheepish airing.

"Nothing's ever certain," adds Kenneth Bonis, who was one of the first in the ground, tightly tying up two flags that, these days, are purely in support of the boys on the pitch.

"We hit rock bottom and that seemed to regalvanise everybody," explains We Are Ports chairman Dave Wiggins, a supporter of 33 years. "It was only then that people realised we all had to take a step back and start working together."

There are now 109 paying members of the We Are Ports scheme, contributing £12 a month each in return for their man on the board as well as added benefits like discount in the club shop and events such as 'meet the manager'.

"That rapport between the club and the fans really helps," adds Mark Beattie, preparing to film the match for WAP's highlights package.

"We Are Ports has been fantastic and has actually grown since we got relegated. It seems that the worse the team was doing, the better the scheme did because more people wanted to get behind it and support in any way they could.

"It's really helping to drive the club forward."

It didn't work, signing those players, clearly. It doesn't work Matthew Tipton

With those supporting and running the club, by and large, singing from the same hymn sheet, a foundation could be put in place for a return to the top.

It had been hoped that local man Niall Currie would be the one to lead the renaissance, having been appointed as boss mid-way through the doomed relegation season.

However, little more than a year later and he was out.

Having brought in established top tier names like Andy Kilmartin, Kyle Neill and Matthew Hazley in search of an immediate promotion, the club ambled to fourth in the table, finishing 17 points behind champions Institute.

"It didn't work, signing those players, clearly. It doesn't work," says Matthew Tipton, the man brought in to replace Currie.

"It's not my belief or my philosophy," he continues, speaking from the desk in his office with his coaches, and club stalwarts, David Miskelly and Trevor Williamson alongside him.

"My belief is to play young players and give them the opportunity to let them grow. As the club grows, they grow."

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Manager Matthew Tipton is hoping his young side will get the chance to test their mettle in the Premiership next season.

Manager Matthew Tipton is hoping his young side will get the chance to test their mettle in the Premiership next season.

Freddie Parkinson

Manager Matthew Tipton is hoping his young side will get the chance to test their mettle in the Premiership next season.

He had promised, in his interview, to prioritise youth, both by pushing forward the cream of the club's academy crop and by luring in the best young players from across Northern Ireland with the promise of first team football.

"It was all very exciting to hear," recalls Hunniford.

It didn't take long for Tipton to deliver. In his first full season in charge, 15 of the 25 players he fielded in Championship fixtures were teenagers and only six were over the age of 30.

This season, there are only three players older than 26 in the panel; 29-year-old Chris Lavery as well as over-30s Stephen Murray and Greg Hall - or 'The Granda' as defender Paddy McNally calls him.

It's a massive change of focus as a club Peter Hunniford

"We pride ourselves on that," continues the boss, who enjoys a close relationship with youth coaches Peter Mullan, Neil McCullough and Noel Cowan.

"Without a doubt, it's something we focused on. The youth set-up here is fantastic. One of the young lads was on trial at a Premier League club last week and has been offered a contract.

"We're producing them and want to give them an opportunity in the team. They have to perform obviously to get there but it's a massive change of focus as a club. I think that will stand us in better stead going forward, rather than picking up the odd 'big name' player. We couldn't afford to now anyway."

It's a strategy that goes right down through the club. While Tipton's senior squad on Saturday had an average age of just 21.6, the Under 18s smashed Warrenpoint 6-1 in the Mid Ulster Youth Cup with a team featuring eight players aged 14 and none over 16.

Perhaps the biggest indication of these intentions came on day one of Tipton's reign - when he quickly installed Luke Wilson as club captain, aged only 17.

"I wouldn't like to say how many games Luke has played for us at 19 but it's well over 100," says Tipton, hammering home his point that early exposure breeds early experience and maximum loyalty.

"He leads by example. He's not a ranter and raver but he plays the game the way we want it to be played; he plays on the front foot and takes the team forward."

The teenage stars also include striker Lee Bonis, who leads the club's goal-scoring charts with 17 for the season, one ahead of 23-year-old Adam Salley.

And alongside captain Wilson in the holding midfield position on Saturday was Tipton's son George. Having been handed his league debut last season at only 15 years and 358 days, he's already forming a key partnership with his skipper.

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Central midfield duo Luke Wilson (left) and George Tipton, whose combined age is still three years younger than their manager....

Central midfield duo Luke Wilson (left) and George Tipton, whose combined age is still three years younger than their manager....

Freddie Parkinson

Central midfield duo Luke Wilson (left) and George Tipton, whose combined age is still three years younger than their manager....

"George wouldn't be there if he wasn't good enough or playing well enough," asserts the boss, rejecting any suggestions of nepotism that, on watching Tipton junior's performance, soon fade to nothing anyway.

"All these lads that have been here as a kid or been brought in at 15 or 16, they get a feeling for the club. Then they want to do well because it's their club."

It's all part of that togetherness that is now evident from the stand to the pitch to the boardroom - or not as the case may be.

"There's no such thing as a boardroom here anymore," continues the boss. "It's a clubroom now. The players and their families, mums, dads, girlfriends, boyfriends, whatever, they can all come in there.

"If you're made to feel welcome and as if you're important to the club, you will, I think, embrace it. Sometimes players go to a club and they're just a number. We don't want that. This club has had that before, players coming in, playing, getting their wages and going home. We want more than that.

"We're giving people a home."

From the day I signed, I've been made to feel welcome straightaway Paddy McNally

The current centre-back pairing reflects that best. Between them, Paddy McNally and Paul Finnegan had gone through eleven senior clubs before arriving at Shamrock last summer, despite being just 25 and 23 respectively.

"I love it. I love everything about it here," said McNally. "There's just a really good feeling. It's a really family orientated club. Everybody from the board right down.

"From the day I signed, I've been made to feel welcome straightaway.

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Centre-back Paddy McNally played for Celtic, Cliftonville, Glenavon, Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne before joining Portadown last year.

Centre-back Paddy McNally played for Celtic, Cliftonville, Glenavon, Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne before joining Portadown last year.

Freddie Parkinson

Centre-back Paddy McNally played for Celtic, Cliftonville, Glenavon, Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne before joining Portadown last year.

"I'm signed up for the next few years and hopefully I'll sign another contract. I'm really happy. To be honest, I think I've found somewhere I'm going to settle."

The We Are Ports members are invited in to the clubroom, too. They're all part of the family.

"In former years, supporters didn't get access to players and staff," says WAP chairman Wiggins. "It was just difficult to get talking to anybody and have conversations. Now Matthew Tipton is walking around the ground chatting to supporters and answering questions."

It's all a far cry from what We Are Ports diagnosed as a 'disconnect' between club and fans just three years ago.

Now all that's needed is that promotion.

"We've got 11 cup finals left," says supporter and, of course, WAP member Timothy Brown. "If we win all 11, we're league champions. It will be a difficult ask but you can see the mentality of the squad, they're there to win every game.

"It's been tough. This division is completely different from the Premier League. It seems to be even faster and if you don't give 100% every week, you end up losing to the bottom teams. With Portadown being the biggest club with the most fans, every team raises their game 100% against us.

"To be fair, we've kept the fanbase since our relegation," he adds, with an inevitable jab at the old rivals.

"There are as many fans that come with us in the Championship as the likes of Glenavon would bring in the Premiership."

The hope is they'll put that theory to the test in just a few months' time.

"I've no fingernails left," laughs Beattie.

It's been a long three years.

If and when the club does once again sit at the Irish League's top table, it will be a very different Portadown FC to the one that last pulled up a chair.

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