The story so far.
By Ivor Edgar
In the autumn of 1900, in the industrial town of Newtownards, the spinners of the Castle Gardens mill played the weavers of Webb’s factory in a football match. The weavers chose to call themselves “Ards Football Club”, and surely no one who attended the game could have foreseen that 117 years later Ards FC would still be in existence, a semi-professional team which in its time has won the Irish League, the Irish Cup, played in European competition and can even boast a World Cup winner! Nor would that early twentieth century spectator have guessed that a hundred years later a team hailing from Newtownards would become homeless and have to play its matches at the ground of its local rivals, Bangor.
But to get back to the earliest incarnation of Ards FC: that team entered the Junior League in 1901-02, remaining at that level for twenty-odd years, with only a brief suspension of activities during the First World War. They played at Ards Lacrosse Club’s Recreation Grounds, and after 1914 at the Fair Grounds, just off the Portaferry Road. But that found it less satisfactory then the “Rec”, and after an approach to Lord Londonderry, a generous tenancy agreement was signed which led to the building of Castlereagh Park, opened in 1923 and boasting a superb playing surface which won praise from the likes of World Cup referee Arthur Ellis and Welsh legend John Charles.
After partition there were vacancies in the Irish League, and the Kirkintilloch-born Peter McLean persuaded the powers-that-be to accept Ards into senior football. In their first few seasons, beginning in 1923, Ards finished 9th, 7th and 4th (out of 12), but the triumph of the decade was the winning of the Irish Cup in 1927. 0-2 down at half time against hot favourites Cliftonville, Ards fought back with goals from McIlreavy and two from Scottish centre-half Bob McGee to bring the Cup back to Newtownards. Tragically, one of the heroes of that game, winger Andy Bothwell, already capped five times for Ireland, unexpectedly died less than a year later, a star cut down in his prime if ever there was one.
The 1930s were a gloomy time for Ards, who bumped along near the bottom of the League for the most part, and from the 1941-42 season, for seven years, found themselves playing at Intermediate level, when wartime conditions led to the exclusion of most of the provincial clubs from the Senior League. Ards maintained a high average position in the Intermediate League, without ever actually finishing top, but claimed silverware in a variety of Cup competitions, winning the McElroy Cup and the Clements Lyttle Cup, twice, as well as reaching a number of semi-finals, including the Irish Cup, which they were still allowed to enter. Despite an understandable bitterness at the way Ards had been denied a seat at the top table during the previous years, Ards re-entered a now reconstituted Irish League in 1947.
Early success eluded the team, and by 1952 Ards finished bottom of the pile. But the first move was now made in what was to prove the most successful two decades in Ards’ history. Isaac “Ike” McDowell, former Cowdenbeath and Linfield inside forward, was appointed player-manager. The wins began to pile up after January, and Ards found themselves in the Irish Cup Final, once again the underdogs against a Belfast team, this time Glentoran. 23,000 saw a fired-up Ards take the trophy, the Scot Johnny Thomson proving the 61st minute winner. A season down the road, however, McDowell was lured to Windsor Park, and Ards needed a new manager.
1952 Irish Cup Winners
They found him in a 39-year-old veteran of 250 games in the Football League. George Eastham was a man before his time. Above all footballing virtues he valued ball retention, even when it frustrated supporters. He carried on running battles with club administrators, especially Harry Cavan, Ards Secretary and an influential Vice-President of FIFA. (You can see Cavan, just behind The Queen, at the end of all the old Cup Finals.) He was the first Irish League manager to make a tactical substitution when the No.12 was only supposed to come on if someone else was injured. And, best of all, he brought along his precociously gifted son, also called George, playing in Ards’ colours at the tender age of sixteen. Ards performed poorly enough in the various league competitions in Eastham’s first season, but made up for it by winning the Gold Cup, beating Linfield, Cliftonville and Portadown to reach the final against Distillery, where goals from Walker and “Old” George saw off the Whites and brought another trophy to Newtownards.
Two years later they were at it again, defeating runaway League champions Linfield 4-1 in the final of the Co. Antrim Shield. “Young George” played in that game, but by the next season the much sought after youngster had gone, signed by Newcastle United for a then hefty fee of £9000. Eastham played 125-odd games for the Magpies over the next three seasons, but when he refused to sign a new contract Newcastle refused to let him go, even for a transfer fee, as they were entitled to do under the old “retain and transfer” system. So Young George went on strike, dropping out of football altogether until Newcastle relented and sold him to Arsenal. Eastham took his grievance against Newcastle to the High Court, won, and thus played a key role in the reform of the antiquated transfer market. He spent five years at Arsenal and a further seven at Stoke, winning 19 England caps. He was a member of Alf Ramsey’s World Cup squad, although he did not play in the 1966 tournament. In 2007 FIFA announced that all squad members of World Cup winning teams should be recognised, and thus George Eastham, the finest player ever turned out by Ards, won a World Cup medal!
George Eastham’s greatest moment (that’s the father - the manager, this time) had yet to come. For the 1957-58 season be jettisoned a number of players from a satisfactory enough squad, bringing in largely unheralded replacements. But he still had the tricky right winger Billy Humphries, the elegant future Irish international Tommy Forde at half-back and the mercurial Alex Boyd to create mayhem down the left flank. This Ards team, the only one ever to win the Irish League, could not for love or money fill the centre-forward berth, playing a remarkable ten different players in that position! Thank goodness then for Hughie Lowry, an inside-left whose 30 goals kept Ards going towards the line. In the European Cup they drew the then renowned Reims, performed valiantly but went down 10-3 on aggregate. After that Billy Humphries went to Leeds United, Eastham to manage Accrington Stanley, and the team to pieces.
1957-58 League Winners
For the 1960-61 season Ards appointed 25-year-old Tommy Ewing as player-manager. Backed by dynamic chairman Harold Black, Ewing signed Mick Lynch, and with the returned Billy Humphries supplying the crosses, Ards proved prolific scorers: Ewing supreme in the air, Lynch bulging the net from distance, and also reviving the fine old art of shoulder-charging the goalie. Two seasons in a row they challenged all the way for the League, and two seasons in a row they fell at the last hurdle. It was heartbreaking but thrilling, and to this day supporters of a certain age reminisce about the great days of Lynch and Ewing.
In 1964 George Eastham returned to manage Ards. The process of team building unearthed three players of genuine class: left-half Billy Nixon, written off after suffering two leg breaks at Shrewsbury Town, local boy Ray Mowat, who would play more matches for Ards than another player, and prolific goalscorer Billy McAvoy, catapulted into the team at the age of 16. It was 1969 before Eastham’s patient buildup paid dividends, when the Irish Cup Final featured Ards and Distillery. In the fevered atmosphere of that year there were some troubled scenes on the Spion Kop during the first match, but not many on the pitch, as the teams fought out a scoreless draw. The replay was a different matter entirely, Ards winning 4-2, all four coming from Billy McAvoy. The next season they held Roma to a 0-0 draw in the home leg of the Cup Winners Cup, but that surprise paled into insignificance compared to the sacking of George Eastham the following year, his perpetual differences with the Board finally boiling over.
His replacement was Billy Humphries, back at Castlereagh Park after successful spells at Coventry and Swansea. Humphries built on Eastham’s solid foundations, winning the 1971-72 County Antrim Shield on penalties after a two-legged final had ended 3-3. The following season Ards put in a titanic effort in the League, finishing a mere point behind eventual winners Crusaders. Nonetheless, the way had been prepared for Ards’ most successful season ever. In 1973-74 they won four trophies, something no club outside Belfast has done before or since. The team hit the ground running, topping the early season Ulster Cup table. In September a packed ground saw Ards defeat Standard Liège 3-2, although the away leg in Belgium proved a step too far. The Gold Cup was Ards’ next trophy, as they beat local rivals Bangor 4-1 in the final. League form was, perhaps surprisingly, inconsistent, but the Irish Cup would provide more glory, as goals from Guy and McAvoy finished off Ballymena Utd in the Windsor Park final. And still they weren’t done. The Blaxnit All-Ireland Cup saw wins over Finn Harps, Drogheda and, again, Ballymena, as Ards brought home their fourth trophy of that fantastic season. The team had played 57 games in the season, scoring 149 goals in the process, Dennis Guy setting a club record with 44 of them. But almost inevitably, the side that had performed so sumptuously began to decline and break up after 1974. The hangover lasted throughout the rest of the 70s, and it would be the mid-1980s before they picked up again.
1973-74 Four Trophy Season
Former player Jimmy Todd was now the manager, and he brought in a superb centre back in Damien Byrne, as well as introducing a young Stephen Baxter to assist goalscoring chef Jim Campbell up front. For two seasons in a row, between 1985 and 1987, Ards finished a very creditable 3rd in the League. But the losses of Baxter, Byrne and others were an ill-omen, and Ards struggled to make any impact for what was left of the decade. Things began to change, however, with the sensational signing of new boss Roy Coyle, former manager of Linfield. He created a real buzz about the place, results improved, gates doubled and the side reached the final of the League Cup. Even though they lost to Glentoran, optimism was high that Coyle would bring success to a club starved of it for too long.
Fate had another kick up the pants for Ards, however, when Coyle left only six months into his contract, to join Derry City. His successor, Paul Malone, steadied the ship to achieve a respectable league showing, but the next season, 1992-93, was a real case of almost, but not quite. Ards were blessed with some super players at this stage: Harry McCourt, Darren Erskine and flying winger Andy Beattie to score them, and David Jeffrey and Noel Mitchell to stop them. Ards reached the final of the Ulster Cup, but lost to Linfield. Halfway through the League they hit a rich vein of form, undefeated for fourteen games, but thereafter their challenge sputtered out. It was a different matter in the Irish Cup, however, after a frenzied semi-final in which Ards scored a sensational McCourt winner against Cliftonville after blowing a two-goal lead. The final paired them with old rivals Bangor, a first for the competition. 8,500 saw a dour game only lifted by two late goals, and the replay also finished in a 1-1 draw. The final, as it were, went Bangor’s way, when Paul Byrne scored and Ards had lost.
The next season, after a poor start, Malone left and was replaced by a returning Roy Coyle. Around Christmas, inspired by Marty McCann, results began to pick up, and Ards advanced to the County Antrim Shield final. Their opponents were Crusaders, and in a thriller it took a 90th minute goal from youngster David Straney to finally see off the Crues. 1994-95 saw a solid League performance, an Irish Cup semi-final against Linfield which went to a replay, and a triumph in the League Cup, where a penalty shootout took the Cup to Newtownards rather than Cliftonville. That season Paul Kee, back with his home town club, was recalled as Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper, only to lose his place to Alan Fettis, another Ards product, now playing in England. But for the last five years of the millennium, things became increasingly grim for Ards. Competing in a streamlined, i.e. much smaller, Premiership, Ards flirted with relegation until it finally overtook them in 1998.
1995 League Cup Winners
Off the field things were worse still, with constant boardroom changes and revelations of debts not far off £500,000. Despite claims that the wages bill was being reduced, the practice of bringing in loanees from England or Scotland did not stop. Worst of all, Castlereagh Park was put up for sale, eventually purchased by a development group. The next three seasons, beginning in 1998, saw Ards competing in the so-called First Division, twice finishing second but losing to Cliftonville in play-offs, with continuing power struggles and financial woes constantly in the background.
In 2000, Ards moved to Solitude as tenants of Cliftonville, the old ground in Newtownards gone. Crowds were poor in Belfast, but on the field it was a successful season, with Ards gaining promotion come April. They stayed up, rarely getting into the top half, until 2006, then spent the next seven years in what became the Championship. Christmas Day, 2008, saw Ards lift the Steel and Sons’ Cup, a bright moment amidst the gloom. In 2013 Niall Currie’s team finally got it right, winning the Championship and returning to the big time. But it was only for a single season, with Ards unprepared for the more exacting Premiership and going down by a distance. Two years later, in 2015 they regained a place in the top tier, the team topping the Championship and reaching the League Cup final by dint of defeating two Premiership clubs along the way.
Throughout the present century Ards have not had a home to call their own, Cliftonville, Carrick Rangers, Bangor, Ballyclare Comrades and Bangor, again, all acting as hosts to a nomadic Ards team. Oh yes, there have been a number of schemes to build a ground back in Newtownards, but the financial crash, apathetic politicians and various other hurdles have thwarted what often seemed extremely promising leads.
Ards enjoy an enthusiastic band of workers who have defied the odds, financial as well as logistical, and kept the club alive. Under Colin Nixon’s managership the team successfully navigated the choppy waters of the top division to finish 8th last season, a position most thought beyond them, and Board and management are working hard to build on that success. Let us hope they can manage it, and bring Ards FC back to where they belong.