Institute's 2024 blueprint remains intact despite relegation
The former Drumahoe-based club has been ravaged by floods in 2017, lost its traditional home and was forced to play an entire season on the road before winning promotion to the top flight.
Managerial changes, a player exodus, a temporary relocation to Brandywell Stadium and then the impact of the coronavirus compounded existing financial concerns at the club.
The 2019/20 season was curtailed after 31 games and Institute relegated as a mathematical formula was used to determine the final standings with the club’s elite status suddenly taken away overnight.
It’s now preparing for a season in the Irish Championship as a ‘non-elite’ club under manager, Sean Connor, determined to win promotion during a 22 game truncated campaign which leaves no room for error.
And yet, throughout all those challenges, Mr Anderson insists the club hasn’t lost its identity as a community club which has built up a resilience over its 115 years history.
In fact the Belfast native believes that remarkable resilience shown over recent years is testament to its loyal fanbase and all the committed volunteers, players and staff involved.
“Every football club wants their destiny to be in their own hands,” explained Mr Anderson. “Our players have aspirations to play Premiership football. When decisions are made outside of the club, that’s very hard to take.
“I think many other clubs facing what we have faced over the last three or four years would not have survived. And we have survived simply through the spirit and commitment of the people involved with the football club.
"Institute has been playing football since 1905. There are a lot of people who understand the history of the club and it’s precious to them. It was a big decision we had to take the year of the flood at the Riverside.
“The club has, for the last 20 years, been up and down - Premiership, Championship, Premiership, Championship. People forget, for 100 years before that we were playing Junior and Intermediate football. So there’s a whole community built up around our club.
“There are men of 70 and 80 who have history with the club and still come to watch the team. There are young kids coming through and they’re hearing from their uncles and grandads talk about Institute Football Club. There is a real community tie in with the club. That’s where the resilience comes from.”
The financial consequences of relegation have been severe for the club, forcing a substantial reduction in the manager’s squad budget while the loss of its Premiership status means Institute can’t apply for the UEFA Youth Development funding this season.
An estimated 70% reduction in club income is expected for 2020/21 but Mr. Anderson and the board of directors have been finding novel ways to make ends meet. And the chairman is confident the club’s ‘unjust’ relegation from the Irish Premiership hasn’t derailed its ambitious five year strategic plan published last year.
They’ve even managed to subsidise some of the club’s senior squad for expenses incurred and those on professional contracts during the Covid-19 shutdown - something the club view as a ‘moral responsibility’.
Five hundred supporters will be permitted through the turnstiles when the Championship campaign finally gets up and running on January 2nd giving ‘Stute at least 11 home gates this season to help make ends meet.
“It has been very hard,” admitted the chairman. “I’ve been talking to sponsors and a lot of businesses that would sponsor us have been hit badly themselves by this pandemic. So we had a fairly innovative idea after a brainstorming meeting.
“We decided we would run a draw to attract local businesses to put £500 each into a draw with the winner putting their name on the back of the first team’s shirt.
"If we could’ve got 15 or 20 of those we would have some good money coming in. We already have a good number of our matches sponsored but you still have players’ wages, the cost of the stadium, buses to away games and all those costs to meet.
“I know there are some hardship funds coming from Stormont but that looks like it will be February or March before clubs can access that. It’s unknown how much we will actually get as well.
“So between people working very hard within the club, the IFA now allowing up to 500 fans per game and the hardship funds, I suspect we will get through it alright.
“We’ve been trying very hard to keep giving players a bit of money too,” he confirmed. “We see it as a moral responsibility almost.
"Some of those lads are dependent on that. I know it’s not all their income because they’re all part-time but some of those lads are dependent on that money.
“We’ve been trying to pay players who travel, for instance, to training to make sure to cover their mileage. Players on pro contracts, we’ve been trying to pay them as well though they haven’t been getting everything they’re due.
“They all understand the situation and there hasn’t been one complaint from any of our players or coaches which is unbelievable. They understand the club is trying its very best in very difficult circumstances.”
’Stute boss, Connor believes that gesture will reap its rewards going into the new season.
“The players are very appreciative of what the club has done for them,” said Connor. “As a group we’ve stayed really, really tight. I know that will sustain us when we go into the season.
“The players are very aware that the club didn’t have to do what they’ve done. It was a gesture from the Board that I think shows the character and integrity of this club.”
So how important to the club’s coffers and the strategic plan, is it to secure promotion to the top flight at the first time of asking?
“In terms of the club’s aspirations and keeping the players’ aspirations and youth aspirations alive, I think it’s very important,” stated Mr Anderson.
“Of course, financially, it’s very important as well because the finances are such that the gates are much bigger in the Premiership.
"It’s easier to attract sponsorship, there’s additional financial benefits of being in the Premiership such as being eligible for the UEFA youth development money which helps us invest in our youth.
“When you drop down into the Championship, you’re excluded from that so it’s really important to be in the Premiership but we’ve never been a club which is just satisfied to be in the Championship.
“Once you take hope and aspiration out of football, then what’s the point? It’s also crucial to have a north west representative in the Irish League top flight. It’s crucial.
“I’ve been banging on to people in the IFA and at NIFL for a long time about how the north west here is a hotbed of footballing talent and it’s not properly represented if there’s no team in the Premiership. That’s what we try to do.”
After 30 years working as a psychology lecturer, Mr Anderson is forever the optimist. He’s confident the club’s key goals of playing in a new stadium back in the heart of the Waterside with an established Premiership team by 2024 remain on course.
It’s a work in progress but very much the target and he’s taken a hands-on approach with first team affairs, bringing his skills as a trained psychologist into practise with the introduction of new ‘mentor groups’ for young players struggling with mental health issues at the club during the pandemic.
As a former centre half for Carrickfergus based amateur outfit, Barn United back in the day, he earned the nickname ‘Goliath’.
Admittedly it wasn’t for his big, strong stature in defence but because, ‘I turned like a shipyard crane’,” he laughs, “Play the way you’re facing, Bill, they’d say.”
But he’s played a giant role in building Institute back up from adversity since taking over as Chairman back in 2015.
In fact, Mr Anderson has been involved with the club for quite some time, starting off as a volunteer for the youth team where his son played, providing transport for parents to games.
Now he’s involved with every fabric of the club and it’s become more than just a passion with the motto ‘people, potential, performance’ at the forefront of the decision-making process.
“It’s my life,” he admitted. “I took over as chairman five years ago and I made a promise to the people who asked me to take over that I would give it my best shot.
"You don’t give it your best shot by going to football matches on a Saturday and doing nothing else. Luckily I’m retired which allows me to do it.
“Optimism for me as a chairman and as a board is important. It would be very easy for clubs in our position to say ‘poor us’. Ours is a long term plan. It’s not just about survival this year. It’s about getting to a new stadium.”
The chairman has full faith in his first team boss to deliver success and has been impressed by the work ethic he’s shown over the course of his time in charge.
“He’s the most committed manager I have ever worked with. He’s been working himself for no money at times. He’s totally committed and probably does as much work as a full-time manager. I see that on a daily basis. In fact my wife has to tell me to tell that man to stop phoning,” he laughed.
For a football manager, how is it having a psychologist as your boss and having every move under scrutiny?
“There’s not one person at our club who can’t go and approach Bill which I think is good,” said Connor who has a masters degree in sports and exercise psychology himself.
“I’ve been to football clubs where it hasn’t been like that. If I had a relationship like this with some of my previous chairmen, I probably would be working at a far higher level. But there’s great satisfaction in the job I’m doing now.
“When you’re in a working environment where you can express everything you need to express it makes you more relaxed. I think he’s made me a better manager.
“When we got relegated everyone was down but Bill was the one who said; ‘Hold on a second. Has it taken us away from our plan?’ The plan was 2024 so it hasn’t taken us away from it.
“One of our key goals is, by 2024, we want to be playing at our new stadium, playing in the Premier League with an established team, challenging for the top six. That’s a big goal but if your goal isn’t big enough, what’s the point?”
“It hasn’t taken us away from it,” agreed the chairman. “When you’re going from ‘a’ to ‘b’, it’s never in a straight line. Life is never a straight line, it’s like snakes and ladders.
“Sometimes you have to go down one to go up again. That’s the way it is. We can still keep working towards our strategic plan and anytime we have something concerning us we go back to people, potential, performance.
“Get the right people in, believe that everyone’s potential can contribute in a positive way to the club and that will lead us to the performance we’re looking for. We will focus on that.
“The club is not about any one individual. It’s about a group of people who work really well together. They’ve got a common understanding.
"They believe in the same values. That’s right throughout our board, our players, our coaching staff. When all that comes together, it’s the sum of all the parts. It’s a special thing.”