Stephen Small got so much more than he could have bargained for, when putting pen to paper for Larne in the summer of 2004.
By that stage Small was a veteran full-back at Cliftonville and was told he could find himself a new club. Having enjoyed much success at Solitude, including a league title towards the end of the previous decade, and League Cup against Larne the previous season, Small had nothing left to prove. He did however want to end his career with one more crack at the top flight.
Larne had just made a managerial change at the time, with John Devine departing and the much travelled Jimmy McGeough coming in. The only problem was, the change came just a fortnight before the start of the competitive season.
Having inherited a threadbare squad McGeough, and assistant Sammy Smith, set about trying to assemble a competitive squad. With Small’s availability, McGeough was quick to snap him up.
While Larne were keen to get bodies through the door, for experienced defender it give him a whole new lease of life.
“The whole season was a breath of fresh air for me,” Small revealed.
“I spent most of my career at the one club, in Cliftonville. At that time I came to sign for Larne, I wasn’t wanted by the (Cliftonville) manager, and that made the decision for myself to take up the offer from Larne pretty straight forward.
“I didn’t want to stay on at Cliftonville and become one of those older, bitter players on the sidelines. Larne gave me the chance to go somewhere to renew my enthusiasm and I’m very grateful for that. I probably wouldn’t have played anywhere near the amount of games at Cliftonville that I did for Larne that season.
“Larne were in a real period of instability, the change of coaching staff late in the summer meant that they were really down to the bare bones, with very few senior players at that stage. I knew the manager was really signing any experienced player they could get hold of by that stage.”
Jimmy McGeough’s lovable eccentricities were well known to those close to him during his time at Inver Park and it to led to Small tasting life in a different part of the pitch, to the one he was expecting.
“With Jimmy’s background, he didn’t maybe have the same knowledge of the Irish League that others would have,” he added.
“Anyone who had been about the Irish League would have had me down as a right back. The first run of games I played under Jimmy was at the left of midfield, though.
“After a few weeks I thought I had better go and speak to him and I said to him, ‘you do know I’m normally a right back, don’t you?’ He gave a bit of a glazed looked and said he did, but he liked me cutting inside to play diagonal balls…the next game I started at right back!”
As Small reflects on his time at the club, he looks back on a number of talented players he shared a changing room with, including a current player.
“It felt like a real buzz to be involved in that squad,” he added.
“We had a really great changing room, with some very good players, like Mark Dickson, who was at the top of his game. There were also some very good local boys that season too. You had Jeff Hughes, Marty Rodgers Robbie Weir, and Chris Keenan was the younger back-up keeper in the squad. We also had some very experienced players in there too, and because of that there was a great bond.“
After a difficult start to that 2004/05 season, with a number of new signings pitched in together, Larne progressed to make their first Irish Cup final in almost two decades. They arrived there thanks to a famous win against derby rivals Ballymena in an Oval semi-final.
For Small, it also had added personal significance of allowing him to share the pitch with brother Frankie, who had been in the Larne Olympic ranks up until that point.
“When you look at the circumstances, at the beginning of that year we had four, five, six players doing pre-season at one point,” he said.
“To put a team on the pitch which was competitive, and then stay up and then to make it to an Irish Cup final was a real achievement. A few highlights of the long career I had came during that one year at Larne, and I was very grateful for.
“One of those was that I got to play in an Irish Cup semi-final with my brother. He really came into the first team squad from absolutely nowhere.
“I went to watch Frankie in a Larne Olympic game and he scored a hat-trick that night. Jimmy McGeough was also at that match and in typical Jimmy fashion, he started Frankie in the semi-finals of the Irish Cup, his first game for the first team.
“It was a bit awkward for me, because some people were looking round, wondering where this player had come from and I had to tell them he was my brother! There was an obvious pride there, because he was my brother, and it’s the only time I got to share the pitch with him in a competitive game.”
As the season wore on, it became clear that Small’s swansong at Larne would be his last in senior football. With an Irish Cup final on the horizon, it proved the perfect way to bow out, despite being on the end of a 5-1 defeat to Portadown in the Windsor final.
For Small though, when the final whistle in the decider, he had his mind made up it would be his last outing.
“In some ways I probably could have gone another year or two,” he said.
“There were a couple of factors during that season made me think long and hard about continuing for another year. I didn’t suffer many injuries during my career, but I was starting to pick up muscle and niggling injuries during that season.
“I also started to struggle to train on a Tuesday or Thursday night and that was difficult. I was more or less getting patched up for the next game, and a lot of my game was based on physicality and fitness, so I knew that wasn’t a good sign.
“I didn’t really want to go down the leagues just to keep playing either. I had played most or nearly all of my career in Premiership, and I decided that is where I wanted to end it.”
Bringing the story to the current day, Small is close friends with most of the Larne coaching staff and he believes that another trip to a major final is within their grasp.
“Looking at the position we were in when I was at Larne, training at Sandy Bay, under dubious lights to where they club is now, is incredible,” he added.
“Now the club are full-time, on a beautiful playing surface.
“I have been to watch Larne a number of times, and there is a great brand of football too. It’s also very noticeable that there is a great buy in from the local the community. It would be really fitting if the club were to make a major final, and even go one better this time.
“You look at it and think that if they could go on to lift a trophy it would probably push things on to next level. However, where the club are at now I think everyone should be pleased. There are in the top six of a really difficult Premiership, which is not an easy thing to do.
“I know Tiernan well, and he is a hard working and dedicated manager, and the chance to make a major final would be fantastic for him, the club and the whole community.”