By William McClelland

SATURDAY, March 20, 2002 currently stands as the biggest day in the history of Institute Football Club.

On that day the Drumahoe club, only a senior side for three shorts seasons, secured promotion to the Premier Division of the Irish League with a 3-0 victory at Armagh City.

Goals from Raymond McGuinness, Gary Woods and Paul McLaughlin ensured the win and seconds after the final whistle was sounded at Holm Park champagne bottles were uncorked by the jubilant players, officials and fans of ’Stute.

That day in County Armagh will be eclipsed this Saturday when manager Paul Kee leads his side out for Institute’s first ever Premier match against Belfast giants Glentoran at the Oval.

Seven years ago Institute were taking on the likes of Strabane, Roe Valley and Oxford United Stars in the Intermediate League. Within the next two weeks the likes of Linfield, Coleraine and champions Portadown will start travelling to Londonderry to play matches in the top division of the Irish League for the first time in 30 years.

The rise of Institute Football Club in the last few years has been nothing short of meteoric, but the Premier Division is far removed for the club’s humble beginnings at the turn of the 20th century.

The early foundations of Institute Football Club were laid in the early 1900s by the Presbyterian Working Men’s Institute (PWMI) and North End Olympic FC.

The PWMI - an organisation founded in April 1882 by local Presbyterian business men to ‘advance the intellectual, social moral and religious welfare of the working men of the city’ - was approached by players and supporters of the lapsed North End Olympic FC in October 1905 with the intention of forming a new football club.

A meeting was accordingly held in the rooms of the Diamond Hotel, with Mr William Buchanan acting as chairman, and it was there upon decided to form a Junior Football Club in connection with the PWMI.

Institute FC, as it was to be known, was to affiliate with the North West Football Association and to play only friendly matches during the 1905/06 season. The club’s first game followed soon after against St Columb’s Court at Magee College Grounds.

The new club wasted no time in making its mark on a competitive level and on Boxing Day 1907 they faced Derry Celtic Wanderers at Celtic Park in the final of the North West Charity Cup - their first final.

Despite the Wanderers fielding a team composed mainly of senior players, Institute emerged victors by four goals to one. Not only was it ’Stute’s first trophy, they were also the first junior team to win this coveted cup.

Around this time, Institute were credited with discovering the famous Billy Gillespie. Frequently capped by Ireland, Gillespie made his debut for the club against Idlers FC at Brandywell in a junior league match, a game which Institute won 2-1. Two weeks later, however, Gillespie was deemed too young to play in the historic cup final victory over Wanderers.

Institute lost the services of Billy Gillespie at the start of the 1910/11 season when he received and accepted a tempting offer from Leeds City. Gillespie remained with Leeds for two seasons before being transferred to Sheffield United.

Ironically, over 80 years after Gillespie’s transfer to Leeds City, Institute forged new links with Yorkshire football in January 1999 when, in a unique venture, they teamed up with Leeds United in a joint youth development programme.

Returning to the early part of the century, ’Stute highlighted their playing prowess on a national scale when they reached the final of the 1914 Irish Junior Cup. Unfortunately, it was not to be their day and opponents Brantwood ran out 2-1 winners at Grosvenor Park in Belfast.

Institute continued to flourish as a North West Junior Club right up into the sixties and seventies, winning numerous league and cup trophies.

At the very end of the seventies the PWMI amalgamated with the YMCA and, after selling its site in the Diamond - the premises of which were bombed twice, moved in July 1980 to a new 20 acre site at Drumahoe. In recognition of their joining the YMCA, the PWMI resolved to preserve their identity by having some part of the new building named the ‘Stute Room’ and the football team would retain the name of ‘Stute Football Team’.

On the field, after a tremendous season in 1980 which saw Institute win a treble of North West trophies, the Drumahoe club made an application and were accepted, at the expense of Derry City, into the Northern Ireland Intermediate League.

Under the management of the late Billy Kee, the father of present manager Paul Kee, ’Stute enjoyed their most successful season in their first year. As well as finishing second in the league to Ballymoney United, they reached the Intermediate Cup final after playing away in every round and also qualified for the first round proper of the Irish Cup.

Unfortunately from there on it was downhill from the heights of that 1980/81 season. After more than a decade in the Intermediate League - a time when Institute failed to win any silverware and found themselves in the footballing wilderness - a new dawn broke through for the club in the mid-nineties.

The redevelopment and resurgence of Institute Football Club was officially marked on Thursday, February 29 1996 when the then Mayor, Councillor John Kerr, and Claude Wilton, representing the North West Football Association, ‘cut the first sod’ of a 100,000-plus development of the YMCA Grounds.

The result of the formation of the Institute FC Project Development Committee in the determination was to bring senior football to the club by the new millennium, the re-development was funded by grants from the National Lottery Sports Fund, Derry City Council, the YMCA and North West Football Association.

Proving to be the first phase of a highly progressive plan which would turn the YMCA from an almost barren field into one of the best senior stadium’s in Northern Ireland, the re-development programme saw the building of perimeter and inner fences, turnstiles, and a new block incorporating separate changing rooms for the home and away teams and match officials, showers, toilets, kitchen facilities and external public toilets.

Two years later, with the dream of senior status close to becoming a reality, further grant aid enabled Institute to pursue a second phase of redevelopment. And, by the late summer of 1998 and taking the cost over the 350,000 mark, the erection of an impressive 300-plus seater stand and floodlights saw the YMCA come up to IFA requirements for a senior ground.

But it doesn’t stop there. A new covered standing area has been constructed opposite the seated stand and it is hoped that seats will be installed in it in the not too distant future. Plans are also on the table to build a viewing lounge behind the goals nearest the changing rooms; this construction which will also include a cafe and various offices, but as always the club must wait until the funding becomes available.

On the field things took off almost as quickly as the rebuilding programme at Drumahoe.

Speaking at the ‘cutting of the sod’ back in February 1996, Chairman Trevor Porter said he hoped that Institute, who had been applying for five years, would be elected to the B Division and then ultimately achieve the goal of bringing Irish League senior football back to Londonderry after a gap of 25 years.

A few short weeks after speaking at the re-development launch, the Chairman received the wonderful news from the Irish League hierarchy that ’Stute would replace Queen’s University in Section One of the B Division at the start of the 1996/97. Part one of the dream was realised.

Institute first competitive game as a B Division club was against Carrick Rangers in the first round of the Wilkinson Sword League Cup at Taylor’s Avenue on Saturday, August 10 1996.

Undaunted by the opposition, ’Stute played their usual brand of entertaining football - something manager Paul Kee has instilled in his players to this day - pushing Carrick all the way. Despite trailing by two goals to the senior side, the Sky Blues marked their debut with a stunning goal 20 minutes from time.

Quite fittingly the goal was scored by club stalwart and then captain Gregory Loughlin with a header from a Kevin Doherty corner. Loughlin’s recent career has been blighted by injury and he is unfortunately no longer a member of the first team squad.

Institute’s first year in the B Division was a very successful one. After a slow start they finished in a comfortable eighth position and reach two cup finals.

The first, on Boxing Day 1996, is one best forgotten. The meeting with Drummond United in the Craig Memorial North West Cup decider at Limavady Showgrounds was the club’s first final since 1982. Cruising at 2-0 midway through the second-half, disaster struck when Drummond pulled one back early in the second period and in a bizarre last 20 minutes ’Stute threw away the chance of glory by conceding two late goals.

Fast forward to the same venue on May 24 - the final day of the 1996/97 season. On a beautiful pre-summer afternoon Institute triumphed in style over Chimney Corner in the Smirnoff Cup final to win the club’s first trophy since 1980.

Hero of the day was teenage striker Barry Cunning. Against a big and robust Corner side, Institute played with style and passion as a spectacular Cunning hat-trick, added to a Kyle Maloney goal, saw the Drumahoe side run out 4-2 winners.

The 1997/98 season carried on from were the previous campaign left off with Institute in stunning form as they crushed Premier Division side Omagh Town 6-1 on their own pitch. That man Cunning was again on form, grabbing another hat-trick in a magnificent display.

A second round 5-1 victory over fellow B Division club Banbridge Town handed Paul Kee’s side a mouth-watering trip to Glentoran in the quarter-finals. Again ’Stute played with confidence and style and they led the East Belfast giants 2-1 in the second-half thanks to goals from Cathal Deery and Sean Campbell. The Glens’ strength, unfortunately, showed through in the latter stages and they sneaked a 3-2 win through goals from captain John Devine and Andy Kirk.

January 1998 brought another Bass Irish Cup campaign and the Sky Blues went on another giantkilling spree. First for the chop was Premier Division strugglers Ards. On another wonderful day, Cathal Deery put the Drumahoe side ahead at Castlereagh Park and captain Kyle Maloney sealed victory with a late second. Cathal Deery struck again in the 1-0 victory at Dungannon in the next round, however, ’Stute finally bowed out of the competition when they were outplayed by a strong Crusaders side at Seaview in the quarter-finals.

There was also an improvement in the league with Institute finishing seventh, a slightly disappointing position after the club’s cup exploits.

For the second season in succession ’Stute finished the campaign with a cup final at Limavady Showgrounds. And it was another cup triumph for the Sky Blues as the outplayed Limavady United to win 2-0 with goals from Damien Redden and Gareth Cassidy.

August 1998 heralded the beginning of the end of Institute’s stay in the B Division. The club had already received the news from the Irish League that they, and Armagh City, would join an extended First Division at the start of the of the 1999/2000 campaign.

’Stute’s final Section One campaign proved to be their best and following a strong run-in they finished a creditable fourth.

Mirroring the 1996/97 season they reached the Craig Memorial and Smirnoff Cup finals with both going to penalties.

The Craig Memorial Cup final was scheduled for the Limavady Showgrounds on Boxing Day 1998, but severe Christmas weather saw the game postponed until Easter 1999. In a disappointing final, Institute and Moyola Park shared 120 scoreless minutes before ’Stute lifted the cup for the first time with a penalty shootout victory.

The Smirnoff Cup final against Ballymoney United at Chimney Corner’s Allen Park ground on Saturday, May 9 1999 wasn’t much better. Again both sides failed to conjure up a goal in either normal or extra time and spot kicks were called upon to decided the outcome. Unlike the Craig Memorial, it wasn’t to be the Drumahoe club’s day and Ballymoney triumphed 7-6 to win their first trophy since they beat ’Stute in the 1982 Intermediate Cup final.

After almost a century in the junior game, Institute finally made the step up to senior football on Saturday, August 14 1999 when the played host at the YMCA Grounds to Bangor on the opening day of the 1999/2000 First Division season.

A proud day for players, officials and supporters alike, the game marked the end of a 27 year absence of Irish League football in Londonderry following Derry City’s resignation in 1972.

And what a match it was to kick off the return of senior soccer. ’Stute fans feared the worse after just 11 minutes as Paul Cullen scored twice to give the visiting Seasiders a 2-0 lead. Institute, however, refused to lie down on their historic day and scored three times through Stuart Bratton, Barry Devine and Graeme Philson to take a 3-2 lead two minutes into the second-half.

It was fitting that Stuart Bratton should score Institute’s first senior goal as he is a local boy who lives in Drumahoe. ’Stute couldn’t quite manage a win on their senior debut as Bangor’s Philip Dykes snatched a equaliser ten minutes from time to spoil an otherwise fantastic day.

Institute finished their first senior season a very respectable sixth and bettered that the following campaign with a fifth place.

However, massive steps were made in the 2001/2002 season when the Drumahoe club enjoyed a ding-dong battle with Lisburn Distillery for the First Division title.

The two clubs were head and shoulders above the rest and they had secured the two promotion spots to the Premier a good month before the end of the season. The championship race went to the very last day and unfortunately it was Distillery who claimed the crown thanks to a nervous home win over bottom club Armagh City.

There have been some good cup battles as well in the last couple of years, notably an excellent Irish Cup quarter-final battle with Glentoran which Roy Coyle’s side snatched with almost the last kick of the game.

It’s Glentoran at the Oval again for starters this weekend and for the next nine months or so Paul Kee and his side will enjoy a season of matches against Northern Ireland’s top clubs.

Let’s hope it’s more than one season and Institute prove their worth amongst the Irish League’s elite for many years to come. It’s a dream come true and hopefully the dream will live for a long, long time to come.