Institute FC, formally of the Riverside Stadium in Drumahoe, now of the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium and playing in the top tier of football in Northern Ireland. Some of their players have gone on to play for title challengers in the Irish Premiership and have a growing fan base – it all sounds a bit glamorous, doesn’t it?
But in fact, it’s the polar opposite – Institute are struggling both on and off the pitch. But to get a clear picture we need to go back to the 2015/16 season were Institute found themselves in the NIFL Championship 1 (now known as the Bluefin Sport Championship), the second tier of football in Northern Ireland, after being relegated from the NIFL Premiership, finishing last and nine points behind anyone else.
I asked the former Institute captain and current Coleraine captain, Stephen O’Donnell, about the feeling within the Institute side immediately after relegation, he responded, “Initially being relegated was tough to take but we felt as a group we could go again and bounce back.”
Kevin Deery was appointed manager of the Drumahoe side going into the season, with Institute expected to make a swift return to the top-flight, and they nearly did, reaching the Relegation/Promotion playoff against Ballinamallard United. However, they finished fifth in the league that season and only reached the playoff when Harland & Wolff Welders, Armagh City and Knockbreda all failed to apply for a promotion license, which is required to play in the Premiership. Despite only being a mid-table side in the Championship, Stute put up a spirited performance against the Mallards, losing 5-4 on aggregate after a 2-1 home defeat and a 3-3 draw away at Ferney Park. It wasn’t just a simple task of playing one week and then the next, the second leg was played 47 days after the first due to Ballinamallard facing a possible reprieve from playing the second leg and staying in the Premiership due to a possible breach of the rules by Carrick Rangers, with Gary Haveron appearing not the serve out his full touchline ban, but despite appeals and protests from other clubs, Carrick did not receive any punishment and the second leg between Stute and the Mallard’s was reschedule for the 22nd of June.
The following season was much more encouraging for Stute as they reached second in the NIFL Championship, qualifying for the new look playoff format against Ballyclare Comrades before the winners would face Carrick Rangers. It was Institute that progressed, and thought they had a chance of being promoted after drawing with Carrick 1-1 at the Riverside Stadium, going 1-0 through McCrudden before half time. Carrick got one back just two minutes later after Mark Scoltock handled the ball inside the box, with Murray scoring from the spot-kick. Promotion wasn’t meant to be for Institute with losing 4-1 away at Taylor’s Avenue. Liam Beckett was commentating on that match and said that “the Institute defence has switched off, even the lights on the Ice Cream van has gone out.” This game brought the end of the Kevin Deery’s reign as manager after he stepped down, with his assistant manager and former Institute player Paddy McLaughlin taking over the hot-seat at the Riverside.
The Institute captain for the two play-off matches, Stephen O’Donnell, reflected on how it felt to be on the losing side in consecutive playoffs, “It was really tough, to be honest. With the whole farce and long delay that surrounded the Ballinamallard playoff in the first year. We felt as though we would come through the second playoff against Carrick. We felt that we were a good side and ready to get promoted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.”
However, Institute began to see bigger clubs come in for the players have helped them reach back to back promotion playoffs. The first major departure from the club was captain Stephen O’Donnell who left for Premiership side Coleraine. This left a huge gap in the Institute backline, their leader has left and with the club without a manager, filling that void quickly with a player of the same quality was going to be tough.
I asked Stephen O’Donnell if it felt like the right time to move on from Institute, he responded, “I did feel like it was the right time to move on. I’d been at Stute for four years and I had loads of mates there. Coleraine had just lost the Irish Cup final to Linfield and finished third in the league. I felt like it was time to kick on and join a top side and compete for trophies. Thankfully it’s worked out so far and I have an Irish cup winner’s medal, with hopefully more to come.”
The Drumahoe side were hit by another team taking one of their key players, this time winger Jamie McIntyre going to fellow city rivals Derry City. The attack-minded player played a key role in getting Institute back on their feet after relegation and was one of the first players on Deery’s team sheet, he would be missed by Institute as the same problems with replacing O’Donnell applied here. That was two big losses for the club in a short space of time, reaching the promotion spots next season was looking more and more of a big ask for Stute.
Then came the 22nd August 2017, one of the most devastating days in the history of Institute Football Club, just one game into the season. The River Faughan had burst its banks and flooded not only the stadium but everything in its surroundings. The immediate thought was that Institute were unable to play their home matches at the ground for at least a month, realistic and understandable to all, but it soon escalated to a position that neither anyone linked to club or not could foresee…having to leave the Riverside Stadium permanently.
Former Institute defender Eamonn Seydak spoke of how the flooding was a double blow to himself, but for the club, it didn’t feel like a massive problem in the immediate aftermath, “My home was actually flooded at the same time so it was a double blow for me, it was such a surreal moment and initially I think players felt like, maybe we’ll miss a few games at home and be back in a few weeks, but when the reality sunk in, it wasn’t even about losing your home ground from a football perspective, you couldn’t help but think of the committee and people that had put their heart and soul into building that place up over many years.”
Seydak expanded on how it affected the people directly involved in the club, “I thought of the chairman Bill, and committee members like Trevor Hewitt, Keith McElhinney, Andrew Russell, Charlie Ferguson and loads more who voluntarily gave their time to look after the place, secured funding to improve facilities and put their hand in their own pocket to keep club going at times. Those are the people truly affected by the flood.”
This was down to Japanese knotweed growing on not only the pitch itself but also in the stands, making it very difficult to salvage the stadium, along with the cost of putting up flood defence and the difficulties of getting insurance. Institute had to think fast, the thought of having to play every game at their opponent’s stadium was going to be tough, so they needed a new home, at least temporarily. After discussions with Churchill United FC, Institute got approval from the Northern Ireland Football League to play their home matches at Wilton Park. This was a location that didn’t meet the criteria to host Championship football, not even Premier Intermediate League football, but Institute had an exception and the other Championship clubs rallied round Institute to support them the best that they could.
Stephen O’Donnell commented on the flood, saying, “It was tough to see. Especially having so many good memories there. I had made my debut there and we also won the league on the last game of the season there in my first year. So it was tough to see a place where I enjoyed, get ruined.”
After only playing one match at the Riverside Stadium in the 2017/10 season, everything was against Stute, but somehow, they managed to win the league with three games to spare. Paddy McLaughlin had done a terrific job with the team, with Stute winning 21 of the 32 matches throughout the season.
Eamonn Seydak described what it was like to win promotion against the odds, “It was up there with one of my best moments in football. We lost 6-1 away to Ballyclare a few nights after the flood, and that journey home was a real low point. Somehow, Paddy Mclaughlin and Brian Donaghey managed to galvanise us all, they brought the squad together and challenged us to overcome it together.”
Seydak further commented on how it was nice to have old team-mates reunited in the campaign. “For me, it was the last season of my career. I had won the championship with Paddy McLaughlin as a player at Institute over 10 years before that and he is someone that I have so much time and respect for, and It is easy to see why he’s doing so well at Cliftonville. I also got to play with good mates like Mark Scoltock again who was part of the same team with Paddy back in 2007/2008.”
Seydak also commented on how it reminded him of his Cliftonville days and how it was the perfect time for him to end his playing career. “The team spirit in that dressing room was amazing, it felt like we were all part of a cause, reminded me so much of the title-winning squads at Cliftonville. We also had some top young players, a lot of them now playing at Cliftonville, Coleraine etc. But looking back now, we were always going to win that league, the flood made it that extra bit challenging, but it was a brilliant year. My wee boy was coming two when we won the league, he ran on the pitch at the end of the Loughgall game and some caught a picture of me lifting him up, it was a special moment for me and it felt like the perfect way to finish.”
Stephen O’Donnell reflected on the period between relegation and promotion, during which he was made Institute captain after relegation and the retirement of Paddy McLaughlin, before leaving the club for Coleraine the season before Institute won the title. He said, “We had thought at the time that with Kevin Deery coming in we would have an opportunity to go straight back up, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. We came close two years in a row and I think those playoff experiences set the team up for success the following season when they went up as champions.”
He also commented further on how he felt about seeing Institute get promoted, saying, “Credit to them for the amazing year they had and the run of away games they were forced to play. Winning the league was some achievement.”
After winning promotion, the problem that Institute faced now was where they were going to play their Premiership matches, with Wilton Park not meeting the standard and the Riverside Stadium abandoned. They agreed to a ground-share with Glentoran to play at the oval, however, this was a last resort for the Londonderry based side, with almost 70 miles between The Oval and Institute’s former home, the Riverside Stadium. After discussions with Derry City and Strabane District Council, a move to the recently renovated Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium, home of Derry City, agreed with the council and both clubs, Institute had a home for their first Premiership campaign since 2014/15 season.
This was the start of something special for the re-homed side, with the squad adapting to the top-flight with relative ease. Bringing in players such as Ballinamallard left-back Colm McLaughlin, re-signing Jamie McIntyre and Limavady United striker Joe McCready meant that Institute had the squad that had the ability to stay in the division. They did however lost key midfielder Niall Grace to Glenavon but this did not have a detrimental effect on the squad, This was because Stute’s captain Michael McCrudden was running away at the top of the scoring charts, scoring 19 goals before the January transfer window. This however led to an issue for Stute, their top goal scorer was putting the ball into the back of the net on a regular occasion, much more regular than was expected of a recently promoted side who have to ground share. It was no surprise that Derry City won the battle to get the McCrudden name on the back of the red and white striped shirt but in controversial circumstances.
McCrudden stated that he was an Institute player to the end of the season, after agreeing to remain at the club……for a whole 24 hours. The very next day a press release stated that McCrudden had agreed a pre-contract deal with Derry City at the conclusion of his Institute contract, which was meant to be in the summer of that season. He then refused to play for Stute stating that he was ‘City till he leaves’ and he wouldn’t play for the club again as they wouldn’t allow him to leave. He trained with Derry City while still contracted as a Stute player and finally, Institute agreed a deal with Derry City once they realised that their captain was no longer willing to play for his contracted club.
This all escalated after one of the biggest days in the club’s history in recent years, one that didn’t feel like it at the time. It was the departure of manager Paddy McLaughlin. He had agreed to take over at struggling Cliftonville, who are a more reputable side than Stute. He had a challenge to get the club into the European spots, and he did that. But for Stute, they faced a period of uncertainty over who their manager would be. Kevin Doherty took over the reins at Stute, on a temporary basis. Doherty was a regional grassroots development officer with the IFA and was part of the Stute backroom staff. Doherty could not take the job on a permanent basis due to his role with the Irish FA.
Eamonn Seydak returned to Institute as first-team coach during the reign of Kevin Doherty. I asked him about the impact losing key players and staff would have on a team and his thoughts on the job Kevin Doherty has done, he responded, “It’s definitely tough, especially if it happens in January when the team has a bit of momentum. When I went back to Institute as first-team coach in January 2019, they had just lost Michael McCrudden, Aaron Harkin and the manager Paddy McLaughlin, that first night in training felt like a wake. You could see the boys felt pretty low and all sorts of doubts probably creep in at that stage about whether the team feel they are good enough without those players etc. Kevin Doherty did an unbelievable job to keep the team together and finish the season really well, achieving safety before the split.”
Seydak also spoke about his own personal experience of losing key players from the dressing room, “From my own playing perspective, we lost Liam Boyce after the second league title win and looking back now, that was a huge loss for us as well as a huge lift for our rivals, it probably bridged a gap psychologically. We then started to lose a few senior players and reds men, the likes of the Scannell’s, Barry Johnston and I think Marc Smyth had picked up a few injuries and we never really recovered. You need good experienced people around to help cope with the loss of a key player.
Institute finished the 2018/19 season in 8th place, level on points with 7th place Glentoran, with the only thing separating Stute from a European play-off being goal difference, with the Glen’s having a 20-goal advantage over the temporary Brandywell ground sharers.
In March of that season, they received financial aid alongside Ardstraw to help both clubs re-establish themselves after the floods. Institute received £142,658 with Chairman Bill Anderson stating that the money was, “significant in our future plans as we seek to build a new home”.
Things were looking positive for Stute, a great first season back in the top-flight and a new manager coming in to keep the momentum going, it was again too good to be true. John Quigg was appointed at Stute boss, having experience playing and coaching at the Brandywell with Derry City and Derry City’s Academy. He actually took over for the final two games of the season, beating Newry City and losing to Glentoran. But he decided to step down on the eve of the new campaign, leaving the backroom team of Paul McLaughlin and Sean Friars amongst others to get the side in the mindset to pick up from where they left off last season.
Before Quigg had stepped down, Institute’s young star Ronan Doherty jumped ship and left to re-join Paddy McLaughlin at Cliftonville in what would turn out to be quite a trend for current and past Stute players. Ronan Wilson was next to leave the side to re-join Paddy McLaughlin at Cliftonville.
Institute’s old stadium, the Riverside Stadium was the victim of vandalism, with the changing room’s being set on fire after an oil tank explosion. Although the changing rooms were practically abandoned, it was still a sad day for the club and the history attached to the ground.
For the opening game of the season, Institute fielded a starting XI that consisted of many fan favourites, regulars and a few youngsters. It was a solid side that could compete, not week in week out for the title, but one that should stay up. But from the side that was fielding against Linfield on the 24th August, only nine remain attached to the club, and only six have appeared for the club in recent matches. Goalkeeper Martin Gallagher, who was part of the Championship winning side and a regular between the sticks for Stute over the past few seasons, including the two relegation/promotion play-offs left to sign for Coleraine. Joining him at Coleraine was midfielder Aaron Jarvis, who was one of Institute’s key players in the previous season, with the ability to fill in at the centre-back spot when needed. Callum Moorehead also left to drop down to the Championship to gain regular playing time with Ballinamallard.
Institute didn’t hold back in recruiting new…well re-signing players that were previously at the club. Graham Crown was the first to return, joining from Coleraine. Cormac Burke soon followed from the Bannsiders Niall Grace also returned to the club from Glenavon after joining Paddy McLaughlin’s Cliftonville on loan for the second half of last season.
The club also brought in a number of players who were going to be putting on the Institute shirt for the first time. Goalkeeper Rory Brown signed for the club, after having a spell with Wolverhampton Wanders in England. Shane McNamee came in from the landlord’s Derry City on loan. Benny McLaughlin, Aiden McCauley and Paul Wells also arrived at the Brandywell.
Institute struggled in the first part of the season, but things soon looked on the up. Institute had appointed Sean Connor as manager, who had experience working in the League of Ireland. He instantly made an impact of the squad, with Institute looking like one of the hardest teams to beat in the league. But after a strong run of performances, including wins and draws against many of the title challengers, the results have dried up for Stute, currently sitting rock bottom of the Premiership.
I asked Sean Connor on what the feeling and the atmosphere was like within the club when he took over, he responded, “When I took over, the team was lacking direction and focus and were feeling a little sorry for themselves. There was a definite lack of ownership for the performance levels etc. Confidence was low, and I felt they needed some clear and precise direction. They also needed a bit of tempo and energy in their preparations.”
He continued speaking of how he went about creating change, “We created a vision, core values and some clear objectives. Then we set about the task.”
The situation that Institute finds themselves in is not down to the manager, but rather a number of factors. Institute are struggling financially, but have ambitious plans for the future, ones that will hopefully pay dividends of them if they come off.
In the January transfer window, Institute signed many players, eight, in fact, arriving at the Brandywell. With the shirt numbers now reaching the mid-40s. it is going to be difficult to get these players to gel. Institute lost more key players during this transfer window too, Joe McCready signed for Ballymena, Jamie Dunne signed for Carrick Rangers, Jamie McIntyre signed for Dergview along with Stephen Curry and Paul Wells, with Niall Grace leaving the club to go to Bonagee United.
I asked Eamonn Seydak about how a massive changeover of players would affect a team. He responded, “I’ve always felt that large amounts of change in a short space of time is not a formula for success. You assume that playing at this level players are at a reasonable level of ability. For me, the key things after this are ensuring that the squad is physically in the right condition and that there is a togetherness and team spirit. That’s easier to achieve when there is a high level of continuity in the squad. I always felt that maybe 1 addition or maybe 2 In January was enough, too much change is destabilising and it’s hard to manufacture team spirit.”
He also spoke of how despite his thoughts, one team in particular as going against to his belief, “The Glens have signed a lot of players and may well buck that trend, their manager seems to have created a great bond and togetherness, they are all pulling in the one direction which will help integrate the new players.”
I asked Stephen O’Donnell about his thoughts on how a lot of change within a team can affect performances, he replied, “I think a big upheaval in players can go one of two ways. It can either bring about freshness and new energy to the club, or it can lead to a lot of players settling in and trying to get up to speed in a short space of time, which doesn’t always happen as quickly as the manager would want.”
He also touched on Institute’s season so far, “It’s been a tough season so far but I’m sure that they were expecting that. No one at Stute will be panicking and I’m sure that they will do everything they can to hopefully stay up.”
Current Institute manager Sean Connor spoke of the difficulties of the movement of players but stated that there was change needed within his current Institute side, “Any movement of players in or out of any football squad can be problematic for a myriad of reasons. Friendships and bonds have been formed, not just with the players but maybe even girlfriends and families. There is also a certain familiarity and comfort created within a group. However, at times this can lead to staleness and new blood is required to ignite the group, to create a new passion and focus within the group. Not all trauma is bad. We needed fresh faces as we are creating a new culture and elite environment at the club, but January is not the best month for this. New players have little if any time to adapt to the new teammates. However, we needed new players to help change the group dynamic, shake it up and breathe new life into the team.”
Institute are a side that have had success recently, but with that success comes a consequence, the loss of influential figures. They have had various issues to deal with on and off the pitch but have always managed to bounce back. They have a five-year plan, part of that is to build a new stadium in the Waterside. Unless Institute becomes a full-time side, I do not see them becoming a leading side in the Premiership, but do they club really want that. Institute is all about the people within the club, the players interacting with the fans, enjoying putting on the shirt on a Saturday afternoon. The better players move on to bigger and better things, but the loyal players enjoying playing football week in week out getting to know everyone at the club.
I asked Sean Connor about the volunteers within the club, he responded, “A club like ours needs its volunteer force, they are the lifeblood of the club. I have tried to create an environment where we all share in the success or otherwise of the club. Everyone has their part to play, from John and Louise, who do our kit and logistics, to Billy our match announcer and right down to Malcolm our Chaplin. They all have a role, no matter how small.”
He also praised the Institute Chairman Bill Anderson saying, “Our Chairman, Bill Anderson, works really hard in creating a culture where everyone is valued and listened too, and in all my years of managing, which is over 15, I have never experienced a culture like it. It makes me all the more determined to deliver on the pitch for them all.”
When I asked Eamonn Seydak if Institute have been a victim of their own success, he responded, “There’s no doubt about it, Institute cannot afford to compete with other teams financially. It’s been a challenge for the club for many years. The absence of a home stadium, social club and main sponsor makes it extremely difficult and the committee there have worked wonders to achieve what they have. The club has set out a really ambitious five-year plan including the development of their own home stadium in the waterside – that will help, but with clubs like Derry City, Coleraine on the doorstep it’s always going to be a challenge to retain players. The club just needs to ensure they are treated fairly in terms of transfers and continue to focus on bringing through young players to replace those moving on.”
Stephen O’Donnell also spoke of how Institute needs to find a new long term home in order to bring stability back to the club and how in some ways the club has been a victim of their own success, “I do think they have been a victim of their own success in some ways. It has been difficult for them to hold onto players. But the priority for the club, and rightly so, is finding a new long-term home and making sure that the club has a platform to build on for the foreseeable future. Once that is in place, then the club can really start going places and starting to compete. In the short term, it’s been tough losing some of their best players, but the financial reward they have got for some of them will go towards a positive future for the club.”
Sean Connor took a different view, disagreeing with my question about Institute being a victim of their own success, providing me with a reflective and fair comment about the feeling within the club, “The club are not victims of their own success. The club is very self-aware, we all understand that we will lose our better players at some point and we will always have to fight extra hard to stay a Premiership club. In the long-term, we have a vision and a strategy to achieve this vision, and we are creating a culture and environment of a commitment to excellence in all we do. This in time will deliver a sustainable and vibrant Premiership club, but the big disadvantage that we have right now is a home.
He commented further on this point, stating how the clubs wants to return to the Waterside and make their new ground a fortress, “Having lost the ground at Drumahoe (The Riverside Stadium), we have sort of lost our identity a bit and our support is down. We are working hard to engage with and keep new fans from the city side and maintain our base over in the Waterside. The Council and all at the Brandywell have been great to us, but we need our own stadium, a base, somewhere that we can develop into a fortress and a place we can make our own again. It will come, and the club has ambitious plans to develop our own stadium. With a new stadium and a new culture, we can achieve our vision, keeping the light shining bright for senior soccer in the Waterside.”
In my opinion, Institute has been a victim of their own success and where they would be known without the unfortunate situation of the stadium being flooded I do not know. But the club saw the negative as a positive and used it as an opportunity to defy the odds, and to make a return to the top-flight without having their own stadium. Their story will be one that will be remembered for a long time by fans of the Northern Ireland Football League.
I want to leave you with a quote from my fellow Over the Turnstile writer Adrian Hack, that perfectly sums up Institute Football Club as “A club that has consistently punched above its weight. Probably the hardest working management committee, when you consider the costs of running a team and the distance they have to travel for most away games. They are where they are on merit.