The ultimate underdogs, Larne FC stand on the cusp of Irish League glory. Look back at the meteoric rise of a team previously down on its luck and the impact its success has had on the local community.
With three games left to go, little old Larne FC are nine points clear of second place Linfield. After a 2-0 win away to Cliftonville on Monday night in stormy conditions at Solitude, the men from Inver Park now have one hand firmly on the Gibson Cup.
One point is all they require from their next game away to Crusaders on Friday night.
Should Larne succeed in lifting the league title, it will cap what has been one of the most phenomenal underdog stories ever in Irish sport.
The club would be the first team based outside of Belfast to lift the league title in 21 years, since Portadown won it way back in 2001. What is more astonishing yet is the Invermen only got promoted back into the Irish League’s top flight in 2019.
Larne vying for the league – looking to cap off recent success
Larne FC’s return to top-flight football has exceeded even the wildest expectations of their most ardent supporters. The club’s remarkable ascent can be attributed to new investment that allowed them to field a full-time team for the first time in over a decade.
The Covid-19 pandemic cut short their first season back in the top flight, and caused the next campaign to start later than usual. However, the 2020/21 proved unforgettable for the club in multiple ways.
After 33 long years, Larne FC finally lifted a senior trophy, the County Antrim Shield, in a penalty shootout victory over Glentoran at Seaview. This achievement was partly made possible by the return of hometown hero Jeff Hughes from professional football in England.
The season culminated with a European play-off victory over Cliftonville, marking the first tangible signs of success for the club. However, to be crowned league champions within the next five years must have felt like an impossible dream to many.
Kenny Bruce – the local man changing his boyhood club
Much of the credit for Larne’s recent success must go to Larne-born-and-bred owner Kenny Bruce. The co-founder of global estate agency Purplebricks bought the club in 2017 and set about changing the club’s fortunes on and off the pitch.
Some of the changes have included a new state-of-the-art artificial surface, floodlights, and ground renovation, as well as some top-class full-time signings. Improved stadium infrastructure, along with the team’s success, has attracted an attendance ten times its average.
Community engagement has also been at the heart of Bruce’s plan for the club and has benefited the town far beyond matchday. The club’s first five-year plan, Aspire2Inspire, has met many of its objectives, while a new project – For The Town – is underway.
Perhaps most significantly, the team has provided the local blue-collar community with an escape from the economic, political, and social uncertainty brought about by Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the recent economic downturn.
On the cusp of glory – Larne in 2022/23
The 2021/22 season saw Larne retain the County Antrim Shield with a win over Linfield at Seaview. They also secured European football via the end-of-season play-offs, coming from 2-0 down to defeat Glentoran 4-2 after extra time.
The European dream was short-lived, with Gibraltar outfit St Joseph’s prevailing in the first qualifying round of the Europa Conference League. But the taste fuelled Larne’s appetite for success, and they entered the 2022/23 season hungry.
At odds of 8/1 with local bookmakers Toals, the club were certainly outsiders for the league title. Few fans outside of the County Antrim town would have been brave enough to take the bet.
That said, few Larne locals would write them off after witnessing their club go from strength to strength in recent seasons.
October saw big wins against Cliftonville (4-0) and Linfield (4-2), and they were at their most impressive in the 4-1 dismantling of Crusaders in November.
December proved tough: Larne lost to the Reds, the Blues, and Coleraine. They also dropped points at home to Carrick Rangers as they lost ground in the title race. But the turn of the year brought a turn in fortune for the Invermen.
In the style of true champions, Larne learned how to grind out results, and they now sit nine points clear at the summit with only three games to go.
With the club’s meteoric rise almost complete, all eyes will now be on Seaview on Friday night as the Crues look to delay Larne’s title celebrations for a few more days.
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