Northern Ireland

Ards FC: Reasons for hope for Northern Ireland football's nomads

A punctured football on a fence at the proposed site for a ground for Ards FC Image copyright Newtownards Chronicle
Image caption Ards's hopes for a return to the club's hometown have been punctured time and time again

It is the football club that has been without a home for 15 years.

The nomadic existence Ards FC has led over the most recent part of its 116-year history has been one of the longest-running sagas in Northern Irish football.

Crushing lows and glorious highs have punctuated the tale along the way.

Earlier this month, the County Down outfit gained promotion to the Irish Premiership, Northern Ireland's top flight, after a two-year absence.

But the many seasons spent playing home games at grounds miles away from the club's birthplace in Newtownards have taken their toll, and the campaign to return the club to the town has been a lengthy one.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Ards have clinched their return to the Irish Premiership by winning Championship One

While ground-sharing is not uncommon in Northern Irish football, the Ards scenario is somewhat unique.

The club's Castlereagh Park home was sold in the late-1990s to raise money to pay off debts and the club played its last game at the ground in 2001.

Ground-shares were then agreed, firstly with Cliftonville, then Carrick Rangers and, in later years, with Bangor.

But the sale failed to solve the money problems and Ards were in dire straits when Brian Adams became chairman 12 years ago.

"One man stopped me in the street and said: 'Ards has been my life and I'm now in my 70s - don't let it die'," Brian said. "I thought: 'Yes, I have to do this.'

Image copyright Andrew McCullough
Image caption Ards sold Castlereagh Park in the late 1990s and played their last game at the ground in 2001

"When I arrived I found not only had they no ground but they were £200,000 in debt and there were several court cases over players and managers that hadn't been paid."

He pulled together a rescue committee to pay the club's debts, keep it in business and get its "integrity back on a better footing".


That process was long, arduous and led to relegation, and the prospect of a return to Newtownards looked distant.

"Some critics would've said we'd forgotten about the ground, but we hadn't," Brian said.

"We were working away trying to get a ground and it was the most frustrating bit."

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Ards are in their second spell of sharing a ground with fierce rivals Bangor

Brian said the number of sites the club has tried to secure over the years is well into double figures.

Each has fallen through for various reasons, with one collapse ending in a dispute with Ards Borough Council and a blame game played out in full public view.

"We had given up hope of anybody helping us, it was just knockback after knockback," Brian added.

Ground-sharing continued, with attendances dropping to about 80 when the club played at the home of Ballyclare Comrades, almost 30 miles away.

A return to Bangor, a much more manageable 15-minute drive, saw numbers rise again and that arrangement exists to this day.

Image copyright Sarah Atcheson
Image caption The long wait for a return to Ards has tested the patience of the club's fans

With every game effectively being an away day, the club has unsurprisingly "suffered", according to Keith Bailie.

The lifelong Ards supporter has watched the ups and downs around the grounds and now writes about them as a journalist with the Newtownards Chronicle.

Crowds of as many as 2,000 would have watched the club play at Castlereagh Park, he said, but that figure is closer to the 300-mark now.

"Irish League football attendances have declined in that time as well, but certainly Ards would've had a much bigger support if they'd stayed in Newtownards," he added.

"It's definitely affected the reputation of the club, the amount of supporters coming through the gates and the success of the team.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Support for Ards has fallen but a crowd of about 300 still follows the club, Keith Bailie says

"Ards had spent almost their entire existence in the top flight, and then post-ground sale, they've spent the majority of their time in the second tier.

"It's definitely taken a lot out of the club."


But, in spite of that, a sense of optimism remains.

On-field success gradually returned after the club's debts were finally paid and it was able to recruit manager Niall Currie.

He has led Ards to promotion twice and to several cup semi-finals and finals.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Manager Niall Currie has guided Ards through a recent period of on-field success

"In many ways the struggle has brought people closer together, having to fight for things," Keith said.

"It has almost unified those supporters who stuck by the club and kept going to games even when they were in Carrickfergus or in Ballyclare."

But can a team really thrive when it has no home of its own?

Well, there could be a reason for hope among fans on that front as Ards begin another attempt to end their exile.

The club is moving closer to an agreement with Movilla High School in Newtownards over building a ground on two of its pitches that are no longer in use.

Image copyright Newtownards Chronicle
Image caption Brian Adams believes a return to Newtownards would rejuvenate the club

It is, of course, early days, but Brian said it would be a win-win for both parties, providing the club with a return to the town while the school would have use of the facilities.

Plans have been drawn up by the architects that worked on the redevelopment of Northern Ireland's national football stadium Windsor Park and a public meeting will be held next week to discuss the project.

"Movilla want it, we want it and a lot of the people in Newtownards are saying: 'We would like to see Ards come back'," Brian said.

"I think the majority of people would prefer to have it than not have it."

The site is in a residential area and the lease of the school's land to the club would need approval from the Education Authority.

Image copyright Ards FC
Image caption Ards has a long, proud history and the club wants a return to those heady days

A scepticism therefore exists among Ards supporters over whether the project will succeed, according to Keith - they have been here before.

But Brian thinks it is Ards's most realistic prospect yet of a return to its roots and the heights achieved in decades past.

"Ards was a premier club for 74 years but a couple of generations have missed out," he said.

"It's our big goal to get back in Newtownards and my thinking is we should be able to double our crowd there.

"That generates more money and in the long term we stay in the Premiership, stabilise and try to work our way into the top six."

Ards hope these first few tentative steps will finally lead them along the road home.

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