Eamonn Seydak remembers Institute's remarkable battle back to the Danske Bank Premiership
Two years ago this month, Institute returned to the Danske Bank Premiership after securing the Bluefin Sport Championship title following the most dramatic campaign in the club’s history.
The Waterside men, under rookie manager Paddy McLaughlin, had played only one game at their Riverside Stadium in Drumahoe before the ground, and large parts of the city, were flooded amid the chaos of the 2017 storms that caused havoc in the north west and beyond.
Businesses were destroyed and homes lost, among them the Riverside rendering McLaughlin and his players homeless for the remainder of the season.
While debate and discussion raged as to their next step, Institute were forced to play games on the road before finally getting the thumbs up from the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) and Irish Football Association (IFA) to play ‘home’ games at Wilton Park for the remainder of the 2017/18 campaign.
It was a daunting prospect for a club already billed as outsiders for promotion before even a drop of rain had fallen. However no home did not equate to no hope as McLaughlin and his troops set about ripping up the prophecies of doom which predicted the loss of their ground would spell the end of ’Stute as an Irish League force.
Galvanised by the new man at the helm, Institute blitzed their way to one of the most unlikeliest title wins in Irish League history and one man who played his part was experienced defender, Eamonn Seydak.
Already a Danske Bank Premiership winner with Cliftonville during a sterling career, 34-year-old Seydak describes ’Stute’s remarkable title success as the perfect swan song to his playing days.
The defender, who enjoyed 13 years in senior football, started out with Finn Harps in 2005 before initially moving to ’Stute in January 2006 but his introduction to senior football proved a difficult one for Seydak. His first term with the Drumahoe club saw him unfortunately suffer the second relegation in the space of 12 months after a similar fate with Harps but that disappointment didn’t stop the left-back bouncing back to forge a stellar career.
After playing his part the following season as the Drumahoe men regained their top flight status, he made the move to Solitide to join Cliftonville where he won virtually everything the Irish League had to offer and also faced Celtic in the Champions League in one of the most memorable experiences of his career.
During his seven years with the North Belfast men, Seydak made 176 appearances, collecting two Danske Bank Premiership winners’ medals and playing his part in a brace of Co. Antrim Shield victories as well as a record-breaking four consecutive League Cup crowns.
Eventually though Seydak, who is a Consultancy Director at consultancy company ‘S3 Solutions’, says work commitments and spending more time with his wife, Louise, and son, Ethan, meant football had to take a back seat which prompted his surprise return to the Riverside.
And while Michael McCrudden’s goal scoring exploits may have stolen most of the headlines for Paddy McLaughlin’s ‘Unlikely Lads’ that season, Seydak stresses it was the strength of a totally united dressing room that was the key factor in ’Stute winning promotion in 2018.
“I always remember when I was at Cliftonville, Peter Murray was assistant manager and he use to say to us when we were winning things that we didn’t know how good we had got. In the group we had there were no egos, we had great craic and that’s what Peter was talking about. At the time you laugh it off but he was 100 per cent right and I compare the league winning squad we had at Cliftonville, in terms of the team-spirit and camaraderie, to the promotion squad at ’Stute," admitted Seydak.
“At ’Stute there were no egos and a good mix of senior boys and young lads coming through. There wasn’t a night that went by that someone wasn’t playing a prank on somebody or someone was getting slagged off. The craic going to and coming home from matches is what won us the league.
“The team spirit, that togetherness and the hard work that people put in that season was unreal. Paddy had the boys in five days a week. There was a running joke that if the match was called off we would be in on a Saturday. You would ask Paddy, ‘How long are we going to be for?’ but never get a straight answer. He would just say ‘An hour or maybe an hour and a half but there were some Saturdays we were still there after three hours. Paddy was always shouting ‘We’ll finish in 10 minutes’ and then you would look at the clock and see you’d been there over three hours - no one else could get away with that! (laughs)
“He would call boys in on a Sunday morning for recovery sessions that would turn out to be circuit classes at the gym but, listen, no one complained. Everybody got on with it and everyone bought into it and that’s what the team spirit was all about.
So how good was Paddy McLaughlin as a rookie manager?
“Paddy would be up there with the best and I only played under him for a year as a manager. I played with Paddy and you probably could tell back then that he was going to go on and become a manager. He always had those leadership qualities as a player.
“The big thing for me was that I fell in love with the game again playing under Paddy. The season I was leaving Cliftonville, I had a bit of interest from other clubs but I spoke to Paddy for 20 minutes and he made my mind up to come back to ’Stute and give it a go again.
“I’ve never been as pushed as hard in terms of fitness and doing extra sessions. Paddy was in the gym at Blast at 10am on a Monday right through to 7pm or 8pm taking different boys for one-on-one sessions along with group sessions.
“The work ethic he had, and the belief he showed in you, in my opinion he’s right up there with the best manager’s I played under.
“The biggest thing at ’Stute was the team spirit he generated within the squad, it was unbelievable and second to none. He had a good back-room team behind him in Dunch (Brian Donaghey), Conleith (McCrudden), Kevy Doc (Kevin Doherty) and the other back-room staff, but obviously Paddy was the leader.
“Paddy should have won ‘Manager of the Year’ that season but I know Paddy wouldn’t have been the slightest bit bothered he didn’t as he wasn’t interested in that type of recognition. He’s more happier for what he has achieved for the club and the players.
“What he came through in his first season in management is something else. I’ve told the story before but I’ll never forget a few nights after the terrible flooding he got everybody around in a circle and asked all the boys to follow him. Remember, we were coming into that session doom and gloom but we left that meeting really motivated and having the belief that we could still go on and achieve something despite the setbacks.
“Yes, it took us a few days to overcome things because we got whacked at Ballyclare Comrades on the Friday night following the floods but I always remember that first training session after the flood when no-one knew what was going to happen. Paddy has that ability about him where he gets people to believe in themselves and believe in the group. For me he was ‘Manager of the Year’ that season.”
What key moments in that season made you think you could win the league?
“There are two moments that stand out. One was the Ballyclare Comrades game at home, I think around December time, when we beat them 2-1. It was 1-1 at half-time and I remember the chat at half-time. I said that, with five or six games to go, now was the time to set a marker down, about how we owed them a bit of revenge for that hammering earlier in the season and the fact they knocked us out of the League Cup.
“In the second half we went out and battered them with Mickey (McCrudden) scoring the winning goal but after that match I thought, yeah, we have enough here and we can do it.
“The other game was PSNI away. I wasn’t playing that day but was following match updates on Twitter. It was 2-2 and I was convinced that’s how it had finished but I refreshed my screen one last time and it popped up ‘3-2’ after Jake Morrow scored with a cross that floated into the top corner in the 92nd minute.
"With all the teams I have been involved with, in terms of winning things, every one had a habit of scoring late goals, so there was something about that game that told me, we had enough about us.”
Were you not tempted to continue playing having helped Institute get back to the Premiership?
“The nature of how the season went, it was probably one of the things that really made my mind up to retire. I nearly felt at the end that I had come full circle by helping ’Stute get back up.
“I had seven fantastic years at Cliftonville and then to go back to ’Stute and win the league with them was the perfect ending for me.
“In fact I remember my wee man (Ethan) ran out onto the pitch after the Loughgall game, the day we won the league, and I threw him up in the air celebrating and someone captured a photograph of it. When I looked back on that picture now, I seem to be thinking ‘It’s probably never getting any better than this moment right now’. It felt like the right time to go.
“It was a brilliant year and a great way to finish my career.
Are you happy with your retirement decision or do you still miss it?
“By in large I’m content with my decision. There is the odd moment when you are at a game and you start thinking, ‘I would love to be back out there’, but looking back, I feel I made the right decision and have no regrets. I don’t think carrying on would have been the right move for me.
“You always miss it because it was a big a part of your life for so long and brought so many great memories but it’s nice to be able to look back on them.
“During this lockdown in particular, you see stuff on social media and people remembering about all the craic with the lads at ’Stute and it’s great that we are all still friends and still talking about that 2017/18 season, it was some season.
“While I was the old boy in the team, I was telling them what Peter Murray had told me years earlier at Cliftonville, stuff like ‘don’t take it for granted’ and I remember when Portadown gave us the guard of honour, I told the boys to soak it up because for all the years you play football, it’s very rare that you win a league title.
“Those are great memories to look back on.”