The treacherous conditions were the story of the day at the Brandywell. Heavy rain and sweeping winds hampered play for the duration of the game in which Larne ran out comfortable 4-0 winners.
Upon arrival at the ground, I was soaked before reaching my seat which set the tone for a game where Storm Ciara was the star player. The game started slowly as both sides grew accustommed to the adverse conditions.
To an outsider, it wouldn’t have been evident that Larne were flying high in the top 6 and Institute were rooted to the bottom of the table. During the opening exchanges, there was little to report in the way of chances for either team.
David McDaid came close to opening the scoring early on but his swivelling shot was saved well by Rory Brown. Whether they played along the ground or knocked the ball long, the rain and wind prevented either side from taking control.
As the half progressed, the higher quality of the “Inver Men” began to tell. Fuad Sule was accomplished on the ball throughout, maintaining possession and shielding off oncoming challenges. The former Barnet player was a fulcrum in the centre of the park, the regular shouts of “well done wee man” from the travelling Larne fans exemplified the point.
When the half time whistle blew, the fans seemed relieved to be able to warm their hands with a coffee and a bag of chips. If the temperatures were unbearable in the stands, I can only imagine how it must have felt on the pitch.
Due to the poor weather, only one stand was in operation at the Brandywell today. Institute and Larne fans sitting together contributed to a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. On days like today, it’s too cold to argue with other fans, you might as well chat with them a bit. There were contrasting emotions among fans, Larne fans hopeful about what lies ahead with ‘Stute fans still despondent about the flooding of their Riverside Stadium in Drumahoe.
Whilst Institute were technically the home team here, they were largely outnumbered by the travelling Larne contingent. This week IFA statistician Marshall Gillespie revealed that Institute have the second lowest average home attendance with 288 at each home game. I suspect that with the weather today, that number was even lower.
Tiernan Lynch must have had a few stern words for his players as they came out rejuvenated in the second half. Lee Lynch wreaked havoc on the left wing with his speedy dribbling and pin point delivery. It was through an outswinging Lynch corner that the deadlock was broken, his cross coming off the unfortunate head of an Institute defender for an own goal. The 70 mile trip seemed worthwhile now for the Larne fans.
Institute spirits seemed to dampen after the goal as Larne grew increasingly dominant. They zipped passes along the greasy surface and began threatening the Institute goal more consistently.
Larne’s quick passing undid Institute for their second goal as David McDaid stabbed home John Herron’s cross from the left. Herron, who joined from Glentoran in January, has performed well since his move, relegating former Arsenal man Mark Randall to the bench.
The confidence of the Larne players had transferred over to their supporters who were yelling “shoot” wherever their side happened to have the ball. Jeff Hughes seemed to be listening to them as his free kick from 50 yards narrowly skimmed the crossbar. This miss didn’t knock the former Northern Ireland international’s confidence however. On 68 minutes, his 30 yard effort squirmed through the hands of Rory Brown. The fan’s insatiable desire for a long range goal was met.
Straight from kick off, Larne burst into the Institute area and won themselves a penalty when David McDaid was brought down. Fresh from his earlier strike, confidence was entrusted in Jeff Hughes who duly converted the spot kick for 4-0. For some Institute fans, this was enough as they plodded through the sodden ground to their cars.
Misery was almost compounded for Institute as they conceded a second penalty in the space of a few minutes. Jeff Hughes stepped up to complete his hat trick, however Rory Brown spoiled the story as he made a strong save. Institute won a corner late on and forced a save from Conor Devlin which was as close as they came to scoring.
The final whistle blew to secure Larne’s third victory in succession. They easily could have came unstuck against Institute today in the blustery weather but they persisted and kept their momentum going.
The victory all but guaranteed Larne’s place in the top six table as they are now 13 points clear over 7th placed Glenavon.
As for Institute, the rain mirrored the atmosphere amongst the fans. With only two victories this season, they will need an upturn in form to stave off relegation. Their Valentine’s Day clash with Warrenpoint Town could prove crucial in the fight for survival.