Frustrated Sean Connor braced for 'massive job' at cash-strapped Institute
A FRUSTRATED Sean Connor fears he faces a daunting task to ensure Institute Football Club remain competitive in the NIFL Championship next season given the uncertainty around elite status and the financial implications of last year’s cancelled league campaign.
The Irish Championship was eventually declared null and void last February after a majority of clubs voted in favour of the move due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
At the time Belfast native Connor warned about the consequences of the governing bodies’ failure to secure elite status for Championship and Intermediate clubs and claims Institute is now experiencing the full implications of that decision.
Indeed, while the ‘Stute boss remains confident he can retain the majority of his squad ahead of the new campaign, he admits the uncertainty coupled with a lack of investment will have major ramifications for the Brandywell Stadium based club.
“We’re busy preparing for the new season but I’m worried about the lack of football for a year and how the lack of investment and not having elite status will impact the club.”
Connor refused to get drawn on his budget for the 2021/22 campaign but indicated he was concerned about how competitive the team could be in the division.
“The Board is still working hard to try and keep us competitive,” he added. “Another concern I have is over elite status which is still very worrying. I said at the time that not having elite status would have huge implications and unfortunately it has come home to pass because we’re one of the clubs that decision has impacted upon as we attempt to prepare for next season.
“There’s nothing to say that we get to October or November, there’s a third wave and then a big shutdown again. It makes my job very difficult to attract players as I can’t give any guarantees that we will play a full season. That’s still my concern.
“So, while I’m busy preparing, I’m worried about the lack of football for a year and the lack of investment in the club. Not having elite status will impact clubs and we’re one of the clubs it will impact most. I’m frustrated and I know I have a massive job on my hands just to keep the team competitive.”
While the ultimate goal remains to make a swift return to the Premiership since their controversial relegation which was determined by a mathematical formula with eight games remaining in 2020, Connor’s immediate ambitions appear more conservative given his apparent shoe-string budget.
“This season is about keeping the club going and trying to be as competitive as we can. My own natural instinct is always about wanting to win but I’m realistic enough to realise that when you’re in professional football, finances have huge implications on whether you win or don’t win.
“I’m very demanding of my players and what I expect of players but the financial limitations will impact upon that. It’s difficult to commit to a contract when you’re not guaranteed that you will complete a full season,” he added.
Connor faces into the new season without first team coach Emmet Friars who has left to take up a coaching role with Ballinamallard United’s U20s and the ‘Stute boss believes the former defender’s departure will be a ‘huge loss’.
“I’m confident of keeping the squad that I’ve put together, however, it’s frustrating how this has impacted the club’s budget and I’m disappointed to lose two key members of my coaching staff in Emmet Friars and Tony Blake, my goalkeeping coach.
“In my opinion Emmet Friars is a top class person and football man who has played at the highest level. Anybody of that calibre is obviously a loss to any football club and our loss is Ballinamallard’s gain.
“Tony Blake, will be a loss as well, he helped recruit both our current keepers, Rory Kelly and Dylan Doherty, two great professionals and both capable of playing in the Premiership. Tony is the best goalkeeping coach I have worked with in my 15 plus year career. Losing the likes of Tony and Emmet are just a few of the unintended consequences of the past 18 months and lack of elite status.”
Despite the financial difficulties which are negatively affecting preparations for the upcoming season, Connor believes the club can be excited about the possibility of moving to a new home which is incorporated in the Clooney Masterplan. Derry City and Strabane District Council are leading on a community consultation process to ensure local buy-in for the vision - a process which is now in its final stage.
Connor is delighted with how plans are developing but stressed the importance of returning to the Irish League top flight and building a team which can compete in the Championship this season.
“The plans for the new stadium are exciting because this club has missed having a base and a home venue. It has impacted upon our fanbase and everything else so it’s a very exciting time but it’s going to take time to develop and we need to still keep the club competitive.
“I’d love to be back in the Premier Division when we go to that stadium. In the meantime we need more fans to come to the Brandywell and we need more sponsors and more support coming from the Waterside community for the football club.”