by Stephen Hamilton (A Stute View Editor)
On the 14 th of August, 1999, Institute’s players took to the field as a senior Irish League football club for the first time. Fittingly, the match was played at Institute’s home ground, at the YMCA, in Drumahoe. And, defying all predictions, Institute came from behind to claim a thrilling 3-3 draw against Bangor, the pre-season favourites to win the First Division that season. On the score sheet that day was debutant Graeme Philson, who was an ever-present for Institute that season, and has since gone on to become club captain.
It was a shaky start to the campaign for Institute. Their first senior victory came almost a month later, at the home of local rivals Limavady United, with Barry Devine claiming the only goal of the game. Institute then went on to win the next four matches in a row.
It was a season of ups and downs. A good run in the Gold Cup, beating Premier Division Newry Town on the way, earned the club a two-legged tie against Belfast giant Linfield, while an end-of-season visit from Armagh City saw top scorer Roddy McDowell score Institute’s first ever senior hat-trick – he actually bagged four goals in a 7-0 win. On the other hand, a disappointing Christmas and New Year period saw the team lose seven matches in a row, including an early exit from the Irish Cup to RUC.
However, come May, the club had firmly established themselves in the First Division, with a highly creditable 6 th place finish.
Institute’s second season in senior football saw the clubs meteoric rise continue, finishing in the top half of the table, and embarking on an exciting run in the Irish Cup which took the club to the home of the other half of the Big Two. At the Oval, Adrian Creane scored the consolation goal as Glentoran edged past Institute with a narrow 2-1 win.
Arguably, Institute’s best ever season was the 2001/02 season; the club’s third year in senior football. Despite a good showing the previous season, Institute started the campaign as rank outsiders; Lisburn Distillery and Ballymena United were the clear favourites to join an enlarged Premier Division in May of 2002.
It was a season of continuous highs, and very few lows. It included wins over Premier Division opposition in the CIS Cup in the form of Coleraine and Omagh Town, a trip to Portadown’s Shamrock Park in the Irish Cup, a run of seven straight wins which saw the club make up a 15 point deficit to lead the First Division, and four players – Graeme Philson, Adrian Creane, Ryan Coyle and John McGarvey – all reaching 100 senior appearances for Institute.
The highest point of all, however, came on the 30 th of March, 2002, at Holm Park, the home of Armagh City. On that occasion, a 3-0 win, courtesy of goals from Ray McGuinness, Gary Woods and Paul McLaughlin, sealed promotion from the First Division. Later that year, after just three seasons of senior football, Institute would be taking on the cream of the Irish League in the Premier Division.
Expectations were low before the season kicked off. With only the bottom club at the end of the season being in any danger of relegation, 11 th place was being mentioned as a realistic target by most of the fans, and by everyone in the press.
And if anyone at Drumahoe was under any illusions as to the immensity of the task ahead, they were swiftly brought up to speed. The club’s second ever trip to the Oval was to be the opening match of the 2002/03 season – and Glentoran ran out comfortable 4-1 winners on the day.
A goalless draw against old foes Omagh Town followed and, on the 24 th of August, Linfield made their first ever league game at the Riverside Stadium. The ground was packed for this historic occasion, and it was the home fans who went home happy. After absorbing some intense Linfield pressure, substitute Gary Woods struck late on to snatch a 1-0 win.
The season would turn out to be more successful than anyone at the club could ever have imagined. Despite losing manager Paul Kee to Carlisle United, Institute were along the early pacemakers of the season, being joint top alongside Portadown and Omagh Town at one stage, and, at the end of September, picked up the North-West Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Omagh Town, who were top of the league table at that point.
Despite a poor run of results shortly afterwards, brightened only by an incredible 3-2 win over Linfield at Windsor Park, Institute staged a recovery in the New Year to pip last season’s rivals Lisburn Distillery to 6 th place in the table, courtesy of a thrilling win over Portadown at Drumahoe – a result hailed by manager Paul Hegarty as “the highlight of my career.”
Having over-achieved so impressively in their top flight debut, Institute have found it difficult to match the expectations of their fans, and the last two seasons have seen solid, if unspectacular, finishes of 11 th and 9 th place respectively. However, the consolidation period for the club was always going to be a couple of seasons at least, and the ambitions of those at the club have not diminished.
With major ground re-development planned for the next few years, and an almost completely rebuilt squad, the club’s directors have set European football as their next target. As Institute look back on 100 years of illustrious history, it is also looking forward to a bright future; hopeful of further success.