In the Official Matchday Programme throughout the season, Ian Cahoon spoke to various personalities from Larne Football Club’s history. This is our chance to look back at some of the best interviews, starting with former striker, Assistant Manager and current Larne Olympic coach, Neil Candlish who featured in the programme for the Ballymena United game in August.
THINGS don’t always work out the way you expect it.
Football often has a way of proving it, and the path taken by Neil Candlish is certainly good evidence of it. He was often a player who could conjure a bit of magic on the pitch, producing the unexpected.
The same could be said about his career. Starting out as a youngster in his native west of Scotland, he had dreams of a career in the top level on that side of the Irish Sea. Despite a promising start, things worked out quite differently for the tenacious forward. A change of country followed, but so too did significant success. Candlish takes up the story of how it all began.
“I was playing for my school side and we must have had a big cup match in the Motherwell area,” he began.
“The teacher of the opposition side was also a scout for Motherwell, and he took me to train with them. I played a couple of games for them and they put a contract in front of me and ask if I wanted to sign it.
“I nearly bit their hand off! To be honest, I couldn’t finish school quickly enough.
“Funnily enough, the first goal I scored for Motherwell came as a winner against Dunfermline and it was me getting on the end of a cross from Stevie Cowan, who would go on to score a bagful of goals for Portadown.”
Cowan wasn’t the only Scotsman who would develop a reputation for goalscoring exploits at Shamrock Park in the 90’s. Candlish would also end up playing under Ronnie McFall at the Ports, but not before two other stop offs after making the switch across the Irish Sea.
“I was injured and fell down the pecking order at Motherwell,” Candlish explained.
“I decided to come over on loan to Ballymena for 10 weeks, at the end of a season. It meant flying in on Fridays and back out on Sundays. After that I went back to do another pre-season with Motherwell, but around the October time I knew I had to move on to get first team football.
“I ended up signing for Glentoran and spending a year there, but the club was in real turmoil at the time. Eventually I was involved in a swap deal with Trevor Smyth, with him coming to the Glens and me going to Portadown.
“I spent five years with Portadown at that time and it was a really successful period. I have more of less all the medals you could win, from my time there, it was a great time.”
A further spell with Ballymena followed, before a brief return to Portadown, after answering an SOS from former boss Ronnie McFall.
Coming to his mid-30’s, it looked like it would be time to wind down his career. However, Candlish’s career was to take another unexpected twist, as the Invermen came calling.
“Tommy Kincaid tortured the life of me to come down,” Candlish laughs.
“I was struggling with my knee at the time and was obviously well into my 30’s by that time as well. Tommy came up with the idea of seeing how we got on and not worrying too much about training.
“In fact, Tommy told not even to bother with training, as long as I put it in on a Saturday. I did come to training though, but there wasn’t much I could do. That put more pressure on me to do the business on a Saturday.
“On a matchday I always gave my all and made sure I put it in. In fact, I remember about six or seven weeks into the season, Andy McDonald came up to me to apologise.
“Little did I know know, he had been complaining to Tommy that I wasn’t doing enough in training, but Tommy explained the situation with my knee. After that, Andy told me as long as I kept doing it on a Saturday, I wouldn’t hear him complaining!”
Before Tommy Kincaid’s arrival, Larne spent half a decade trying to come to terms with the significant changes in the Irish League which saw them, often languishing, in the First Division. However, along with Candlish, Kincaid made some astute signings and it saw the Invermen on the march again.
Kincaid’s second season in charge culminated in a straight promotion shoot-out with Bangor.
As football so often does, the fixture list of course threw up a final day meeting between the Seasiders and Larne. A point would have been good enough to see Larne return to the top flight of Irish League football.
Hundreds of Larne fans descended on Clandeboye Park on 22 April, 2003. It was a day of drama and tension. It’s also a day etched on the memory of Neil Candlish.
“I can remember that day very well,” he said.
“What helped that day was probably the experience of people like myself and Tommy McDonald had.
“I remember talking to Sam McCready before that match and we knew we had to be confident in ourselves.
“The people who were involved back then, the likes big Ken Rainey – who the players loved. I still remember getting the phonecall to say he had passed away, I was close to tears.
“People like Ken, Sam McCready, Rab Hutchinson did so much for the club and it meant a lot of be promoted.
“I remember putting in the free-kick for Mark Dickson to get on the end of and, even though Bangor equalised, it was good enough to get us what we needed. The crowd and celebrations afterwards was something else.”
Of course for Candlish, it meant an unexpected return to the top flight at the age of 35.
“We knew going up was one thing, but we wanted to stay up,” he added.
“There were players who came in with great experience like John Devine and Jim McCloskey. Good fellas, who had good experience.
“There was obviously that young whipper snapper by the name of Jeff Hughes that season too. You watch him now and he glides through games and as soon as he came in, you knew he’d go to England. He all the ability you’d need.
“The crowds were always decent and you see the people at matches. The one thing you can say about Larne, they’re brilliant towards players.
“My work takes me around Larne, and I’ve lost count of the amount of people who will come up to me and say, “do, you remember the goal you scored against such and such?”
“Playing for Larne was a great way for me to end my playing days too. The one thing you knew about Larne was that as long as you went out and gave your all, the supporters would always treat you well.”
After stepping away from the game for a period recently, Candlish must have thought that his days of football bringing up the unexpected must have been over. Not quite.
“My work takes me to Sandy Bay quite often,” he said.
“Last season I was down on a Friday and I could see a team training, so I went over to see who it was. It was Tiernan down with the first team because they were playing on a grass pitch the next day.
“I got chatting to him and he asked what I was doing regarding football. I told him I wasn’t doing anything. He invited to be get involved with the Development squad, and I’ve been down working with Hugh McKendry ever since.
“I really enjoy that side of things now and when we have first team players playing for us, I have to say they are nothing but first class.
“The young lads learn so much playing alongside them and as coaches it’s our job to pass on to them what we have learned about the game.”
There will be plenty to learn from Neil Candlish. Chief among them, expect the unexpected.