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“Last-chance Saloon” for Ards...

... optimistic 5-year strat-plan offers genuine hope.

The Journey Back. Ards FC launched it’s Five-Year Strategic Plan this week.

Ards FC is a special football club…

Any sporting institution fast approaching its 125th year, operational through two world wars and with an enforced nomadic existence over the last couple of decades is deserving of note.

Down through history there have been successes too of course; Irish Cups, a League title and European football.

But recent seasons have been tough, homeless and frankly a mission of survival. So much so that incumbent chairman Warren Patton describes his club’s Five-Year Strategic Plan, launched earlier this week, as potentially being… ‘our last chance’.

They’ve become the great wanderers of Irish football since a previous board sold off Castlereagh Park to clear debt and build a new stadium. Ards fans have been waiting on the latter now for over 20 years.

December 2001 - Ards last-ever home game at Castlereagh Park, a 0-4 defeat to Glentoran...

A whole generation from the borough have been disenfranchised, fathers and sons denied the experience of walking down the Portaferry Road to the football ground, a journey my own dad took me on, to see my very first game of football weeks after the first Mexico World Cup.

Despite England relinquishing its world title to that most glorious collection of yellow-shirted Brazilians ever, the great Gordon Banks was the star-turn as Stoke City rolled into town.

Three and a bit years later I tasted European football there for the first time. Continental competition back then still retained immense, mystical allure.

About 8,000 crammed into the little ground that night and Standard Liege bamboozled by McAteer, McAvoy and Cathcart, were beaten 3-2. It remains the only time a club from these shores has toppled one from Belgium.

That season, 1973/74, was an unforgettable one for Ards, undoubted Cup Kings of Ireland, carrying off no fewer than four trophies; Blaxnit All-Ireland Cup (a previous version of the Setanta Cup), Irish Cup, Gold Cup and Ulster Cup.

The famous four-tophy team of 73/74, the subject of a book by author and club stalwart, Adrian Monaghan.

Arguably though, the club’s biggest achievement came in 1957/58, when it became only the second provincial club to take the Gibson Cup out of Belfast after being crowned Irish League Champions. The following season, another notable second; they became the second Irish League club ever to play European football.

Stade de Reims who unsuccessfully contested that year’s European Cup final with Real Madrid were the visitors… that prolific French striker Juste Fontaine scored six times over the two legs and Hugh Lowry of Ards became the first Irish League player to score a European goal.

With such a CV, the Ards footprint in Irish football folklore runs firm and deep.

Yet they have struggled from pillar to post since the turn of the century. No base to call home, and hosting opponents at Ballyclare, North Belfast and Clandeboye to name but three, a generation of Ards youth has grown up ambivalent to the town’s once-proud football club.

Patrick Cafolla a young, modern-day player at the club whose family association extends many more years beyond, has never experienced Ards play a home game in the borough. He’s 23 now and hopes, naturally, to one day play for his hometown club at ‘home’.

Patrick’s grandfather helped the club out financially back in the fifties, never seeking repayment, instead settling to have the name of his local ice-cream and café business, CAFOLLA’S, painted on the roof of the stand.

23 year-old Patrick Cafolla in action against Dergview at Darragh Park earlier this season.

If Patrick is to realise his dream and the hopes of many other Ards football folk, the Five-Year Strat Plan must come to fruition.

It’s ambitious, although not overly so and everything adds up. It covers five areas of focus, all inter-linked, embracing community engagement, youth, men’s women’s and disability football, all underpinned by development and excellence.

The Journey Home has central to its end-term targets, a fully developed IFA Premiership quality Community stadium in Newtownards. Government money is available for football and Ards FC have set out their case for a piece of the pie, having already actively lobbied the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey.

They also await a decision on acquiring land from Ards & North Down Borough Council, whose representatives at last Monday’s Strat Plan launch were forthright in advising that D-Day was not far away and that… ‘the issue would be in front of council very soon’.

Other end-term targets cover financial health, fan-growth and quality outreach and development programmes.

In addition, Academy system success is targeted with teams throughout the club competing at the highest levels possible and of course the establishment of a competitive first team squad in the NIFL Premiership.

This week’s professionally-presented plan provided the impression of a better-structured, more business-oriented club, with a model to maximise revenue potential, including a Financial Committee and Grants Sub-committee.

The club aims to tap into its greater catchment area. Patton again: “Newtownards almost touches various surrounding towns now, so the catchment area has spread wider,” a view given credence by a survey conducted under the recent consultative process in which over half of respondents (51%) lived outside the town. Significantly around half of those living outside the town were still within the Borough of Ards and North Down.

Other highlights from the survey included 60% classing themselves as ‘past supporters or having no affiliation with the club’, suggesting healthy scope for future engagement/re-engagement, while 69% of respondents unsurprisingly identified facilities and ground development as the top priority for the football club.

Warren Patton has grown up with the club as a constant; from fan to player, to board member and now Chairman. He and his board are genuine football men, invested in Ards’ future. Their five-year vision is modestly ambitious, certainly not pie-in-the-sky, and eminently achievable. It remains a challenging road ahead. Four million quid is still required to build the planned 2,000 capacity stadium.

If two key elements determine success or failure for Ards’ Last Chance, they surely must be excellence and momentum.

What’s happening further north at Coleraine FC these days, provides probably the best example to illustrate this and offer encouragement. In a chat I had with Bannsiders’ Media Manager Johnny McNabb last week he said, “The Chairman and Manager here demand professionalism and that runs all through the club’s DNA these days. From management to players to media team, all the way across to the stewards and tea-ladies, we’re all pulling in the same direction for the good of the club.”

At the Showgrounds, Coleraine installed a 4G pitch over the most recent close-season. It’s not only become a community hub as a result, but many of those coming to use the new facility, now return to watch first-team games.

They had 3,500 through the turnstiles recently on a Friday night against Larne and have split the so-called Big Two dominance as the best supported clubs in the province, enjoying a higher average home attendance than Glentoran over the first 15 rounds of this season.

It’s also enabled training nights at The Showgrounds, players no longer having to use the local University’s facilities.

Coleraine are reaping rewards and riding high. Similar initiatives on the table at Ards could provide the Penninsula’s only senior club with its shot-in-the-arm moment.

Buzzwords maybe, but excellence forges progress leading to credibility and momentum. Warren Patton is first to recognize there’s been too many false dawns already when it comes to the ground issue. It’s put-up or shut-up time. Ards must walk the talk.

Ards Chairman Warren Patton knows there’s been too many false dawns and feels this new initiative offers his football club a final opportunity to rediscover past glories.

You do though sense a breakthrough is coming ever closer. Local business, recognizing the benefits a healthy football club can bring to the borough, clearly has a part to play too, and must be encouraged to collectively become modern-day Cafollas.

Ards’ Board has already covered hard yards in conjunction with a partnering consultancy firm.

The new, well-devised strat-plan mandated by survey findings, lends credibility along with various community, youth and disability initiatives already underway at the club. It’s structurally streamlined, professionally-crafted and available to interested parties.

Committed people are behind it, determined not to repeat the folly of predecessors. Frankly it’s sound and deserves the support of the football fraternity.

So… come on the Ards!! The town especially, and its peninsula neighbours must pull together to make this happen. Ards Football Club has already spent far too long drifting homelessly along. Its fabled contribution to local football deserves something immeasurably grander.

With the drive and dedication of those behind the plan and three generations after his grandfather helped the club, Patrick Cafolla may yet get the chance to play for his beloved Ards at home.

Now wouldn’t that be quite the happy ending…?