Many notables have progressed through the ranks at Inver Park, some even going on to greater things, think Jim Hagan, Mal Donaghy, Brian Quinn...
Others carved out remarkable Irish league careers; Trevor McMullan, Tom Sloan, Gerry O’Kane and Paul Carland to name but four, but none of those ever got to do this...
Larne FC 2021, is a different proposition. The popular Purple Bricks revolution in full swing, the club, which for a decade struggled to make ends meet in second-tier football, is now playing, and progessing, in European football.
Larne left the ranks of the NIFL Championship only in 2019. Last night they hosted their first-ever European match becoming the first Irish club ever not to concede a goal in its first two European ties (tip of my hat to the irrepressible Marshall Gillespie for that little nugget).
Yes, the would be record-makers have become record-breakers, and they’ll hope to extend their defensive stinginess next Thursday (22 June) when they step up in class to face returning, experienced, Euro-campaigners, AGF Aarhus.
The Danes have been through a lean period themselves with no European football for 8 seasons, but the former club of Jonny Sivebaek (ex-Manchester United), Henning Jensen (Real Madrid) and Flemming Povlsen (Borussia Dortmund) will present a formidable challenge.
They’re no strangers to Northern Ireland. Aarhus played in the first-ever European club match in Northern Ireland, defeating Glenavon 3-0 in the 1955/56 European Cup and returned to deliver a second dose to the Lurgan men, eliminating them from the 1988/89 Cup Winners’ Cup 7-2 on aggregate.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Last night was all about the new Larne.
They faced a functional and robust outfit in Bala Town from the Welsh League, who themselves progressed through a round in Europe for the first time, only last season.
But Larne, matched them in the physical battle, earned the right to play and while cutting-edge was absent across an uneventful first 45 minutes, a winning goal looked more likely as the game wore on.
And it was worth waiting for when it finally arrived, from the right boot of Ronan Hale. Hale a late introduction from the bench could just be the man for Europe. He’s got previous... playing for Derry City in 2018, he scored the winner in Minsk as The Candystripes ran out 2-1 to the good over Dinamo.
Last night he profited from some intricate wide work by Dean Jarvis, and bent the ball into the top right corner from 20 yards. It was minute 84. He’d replaced David McDaid only six minutes previously.
It was a consummate display by Larne, whose only real moment of alarm came midway through the first-half when former Welsh international David Edwards should have converted with a header.
Had the former Wolves man scored it might have been a different story, but the team in red played the better football, remaining assured throughout.
As the contest entered its final fifteen minutes, you sensed a home goal was coming.
The game opened up with chances falling to McKendry, Donnelly and McDaid. But none could find the composure displayed by Hale when giving Ramsey, the busier of the two keepers, no chance as the ball ripped into the top corner.
A fitting goal to bring the curtain down on Inver Park’s first big European night...
Three Takeaways -
1 - No visit to Inver Park for experienced Irish League watchers is complete these days without taking a few minutes to wonder at the ‘what was’ and the ‘what is’. Work undertaken by the new ownership has not detracted from Inver Park’s old charm. It’s enhanced it. The new Church End stand where I watched from last night, is the latest stage in an impressive stadium renaissance. Larne now has a home base and ownership to be proud of.
I don’t like artificial pitches, but their’s looks ‘best-in-class’. Not sure I’ve ever seen a better rectangle that’s not the real thing.
2 - Covid-restricted, sadly there was only 900 fans present for last night’s occasion, but they created a fitting atmosphere. ‘Mary had a little lamb’... apparently.
But there was a sizeable waiting list disappointed at not getting a ticket. Further evidence if it were needed that the Purple Bricks revolution has taken hold and re-stirred interest in the town’s football club. The environment is vibrant, expectant and progressive. They still need to get things right on the playing side, but there’s momentum gathering that will be difficult to repel.
3 - Larne continue to knock the ball around attractively in the image of head coach Tiernan Lynch. It’s the way the former Glentoran assistant likes the game to be played. It all came good last night eventually, after a rash of changes, but penetration needs to improve. A tad of directness wouldn’t go amiss amidst the pretty patterns.
Footnote: I was privileged to have sat alongside Jimmy Brown last evening, himself successful in coaching then ‘B’ Division Carrick Rangers through a round of European football, following that club’s momentous Irish Cup win in 1976.
We had a great chat, rolling back the years. Then he told me my ticket was originally Billy McAvoy’s, a wonderful finisher I watched many times starring for Ards and the last player (only player?) to score four goals in an Irish Cup Final.
I might be the worst-ever replacement substitute for Billy McAvoy, but I’ll take it!