Niall Currie (Picture: PressEye.com)
Tuesday, 14 February 2012
FOUR months into the Ards job and with the transfer window finally closed, Niall Currie is looking ahead, content that he now has the squad he needs to ensure a strong finish to the season.
The boss of the North Down club took the reins back in October with the side in the bottom half of the table and seriously lacking in confidence.
In those few short months since, the man who twice won the Championship with Loughgall, has overseen a rise to second place in the table and a run of results that has yet to yield a loss in a league game.
So what has triggered the turnaround?
"We always build from the back," begins Niall, "And from the start we worked hard, cutting out the number of goals that the team had been conceding from corners.
"We did a number of sessions simply working out where players should be positioned. And we encouraged a lot. When we came we drilled into the players that they were playing for their future at a big club, that anywhere they go from here will be down.
"We told them it's down to you to make sure that you’re a part of the future here."
Inspiring words from the man who no one can doubt has seen success follow him through his short time in management.
But Currie insists that all of that has been down to his personnel.
"Football is about players and all we do is help that. I'm just here to make players believe that they're good enough," says the former goalkeeper.
"I couldn't praise the players highly enough, even those who have moved on. Up until to the transfer window they were fantastic. The commitment and effort levels were right up there, as good as anything we've worked with.
"I think that everybody's got to know their responsibility when they play for this club and that's all we concentrate on.
"Everybody needs to know their jobs and what we expect from them. I think what we have here is as good quality wise as any squad I've ever assembled.
"Now the question is, do these players have the mental strength to kick on and win trophies?"
The team that Currie and his backroom team of Michael McKeown and Jay Willis inherited was one not only lacking in belief, but also in key positions, as number two McKeown explains.
"The imbalance was that we when we came we had something like nine defenders and only two centre forwards, with no options wide. That doesn't work because all of your options are on the negative side.
"To change a game, it needs to be done from a positive angle, which means we need options going forward and on the wings. Now the one advantage of having so many defenders was it allowed us to cherry pick what we wanted at the back and then we started to look at what else we needed."
The January sales saw the arrival of five players, with four heading out the door as Currie sought address the imbalance in the line-up.
Craig McMillen returned after a year and a half with the Welders while Bangor's Johnny Bowers and Andy Smith of Carrick were deadline day arrivals.
New too was forward Joe Finlay, who singed until the end of the season from Glenavon.
"Joe has scored a lot of goals in the last few years," says Currie.
"I've seen enough of him to know that he's got a chance for us. David Magee is another who did very well for Glenavon at the start of the season, but they were maybe in a position where they couldn't afford to take risks with young players, so he's come to us for a few months.
"We're looking ahead to next season. No manager is ever completely happy, but I believe we're got the quality to make a push and now it's a mentality thing.
"Sometimes having the quality isn't always enough and so now we've got to see what sort of character we have."
Throughout his playing career, the charismatic Currie was never far away from the headlines and so it continued when he moved into management.
A clutch of trophies, including five in one season at Loughgall showed the Portadown man knew plenty about this level of football and he believes there's an opportunity for the side next season.
"I think the standard in this league has remained fairly constant. In the one year out of the three that I didn't win the league at Loughgall, you had Portadown and Donegal Celtic in the mix, but we still pushed them hard.
"I don't think there's anyone this year, who is the Portadown or the Carrick that has been putting in a lot of money. I think this season was wide open, and I just wish I had have been here from the start.
"This year there was no obvious team who might have run away with it. It was a good opportunity, whereas next year there might be a Glenavon or Dungannon in the mix and so it'll be a tough ask to win things."
Ards' last success was the Steel & Sons Cup win in 2008 and before that the First Division title at the turn of the century.
But Currie has no doubt that there's potential to become a force again.
"That's what attracted us to the job in the first place. The first time I spoke to the chairman, the enthusiasm he had and the plans he had impressed me. And it looked like a challenge, and everybody should want a challenge.
"I've always loved pressure and I know I'll get plenty of it here. That's a lot better that nobody saying anything."
Ex-midfield hard man McKeown agrees: "I'm under no illusions; I know what Ards was, because I played against them for years. This is a big club that's sleeping at the minute. It needs to push on and once we get over that first hurdle of getting up, I guarantee that the club will then stay in that league.
"I know how big a history this club has and we rattle that into the players every week."
Due to postponements and the early exits from a number of cup competitions, Ards have found themselves idle for the last number of weeks.
The make-up of the fixture calendar below the top flight often sees a busy last few months, with more league matches played in the second part of the season than the first.
That means most of Ards' new signings have yet to feature competitively. So with a third of league games left, it's still very much up in the air who might lock down a place in the side.
"Whoever is doing well will be in the team," is Currie's simple philosophy.
"Sometimes players have to be patient. We need a squad of players and those players know that if they do well, then they'll get a chance in the team and if they play well, then they'll stay in the team.
"If a player comes on in a game and does well, then they know that there's chance they'll be starting the next game. We've players who can play in other positions, so we're fortunate like that.
"That means that no one is guaranteed their place and we certainly don't have any favourites. All we ask from the players is an honest performance."
Presently Ards trail league leaders Ballinamallard by ten points, meaning that a serious title challenge might not come to fruition this time around, but manager Currie is sure that by the time the next season begins, his side will hit the ground running.
"Somebody's dropping into our league next year and they'll come in as favourites, but I'll say to the guys that if we keep our heads down, go about our job, then we'll have a chance.
"We tell the players constantly about the pressure from the supporters. They have to be responsible to someone, whether there's five or five hundred out there watching.
"The club's been successful in the past and I think it can be again."
By Andrew McCullough