Larne chairman Gareth Clements has hailed boss Tiernan Lynch for masterminding a magical – and emotional – journey for the Inver Reds in Europe this summer.
Clements freely admits he has shed tears three times in the past fortnight after watching his boyhood club step out in UEFA competition for the first time.
Bala Town of Wales and Danish big-hitters Aarhus have both been overcome in the first two qualifying rounds of the Europa Conference League.
And Clements believes the understated but meticulous Lynch deserves immense credit for delivering four of the East Antrim club’s most famous results.
Especially after the Larne boss came in for a bit of flak from a section of supporters after Larne endured a blip in form midway through last season’s league campaign.
“I look back on the last four games in Europe with serious pride but also a strong sense of vindication for standing by the manager,” said Clements.
“There have been a few times over the last couple of seasons where some supporters have been restless. I’m thinking back to January and February when we were on a bad run.
“A certain section of our support was calling for Tiernan’s head, but that was never part of our thought process, from Kenny (Bruce) down to the board.
“I just think what Tiernan has done in Europe over the past month or so fully justifies and vindicates our decision to back him and his full-time vision for the club.
“We were bullish at the start of this journey in 2017 that one of our aims was securing European football for the first time in the club’s history and Tiernan has helped deliver that.
“What we are experiencing is the stuff of boyhood dreams – Roy of the Rovers stuff – and Tiernan deserves immense credit for playing a massive part in that.”
Growing up watching Larne with his late father Hugo and brother Paul, who died suddenly in 2017, Gareth freely admits he has succumbed to raw emotion in recent weeks.
Tears were shed during Larne’s pulsating 2-1 home leg win over Aarhus, and again after Ronan Hale rifled home a crucial goal in last week’s 1-1 draw in the return fixture in Denmark.
“I’m big enough to admit that I’ve shed tears on three occasions over the course of the past couple of weeks,” said Gareth.
“When we scored our two goals against Aarhus in the first leg at Inver Park, I was gone – complete gone – with emotion. My wife Karen had to put her arm around me to help me gather myself.
“It was the same when Ronan put us 1-0 up in Denmark. It meant so much and it was really special to be there to witness such a famous result for the club.
Gareth Clements and fellow board members in Aarhus
“As a teenager watching Larne during the Paul Malone era in the late-1980s, we were on the crest of a wave and I was a 15-year-old fan dreaming of European football.
“Three decades later I’m sitting in a directors box in Denmark watching us overcome a club of Aarhus’s stature in Europe. It was one of my proudest moments.”
In a touching tribute, Gareth visited his brother Paul’s graveside to lay a memento of Larne’s first ever European adventure after the club’s recent home leg win over Bala Town.
“I had one of the VIP passes from the Bala game in an official lanyard and I took it up and laid it on Paul’s grave,” he said.
“The club meant a lot to my brother and it was something I wanted to do. He didn’t get to see me become chairman in 2017 and I know it would have meant a lot to him.”
Larne are in an altogether better place, on and off the pitch, almost four years after Lynch’s appointment as manager, Bruce’s takeover and Clements’ subsequent appointment as chairman in September 2017.
“Kenny and I wanted to grow Larne as a football club, but also help grow the town, and that was and remains something very close to our hearts,” said Gareth.
“A few people thought we were off their rockers, but what has happened over the past four years is fantastic. It has helped put a smile on Larne’s face again.
“The buzz around the football club and town is phenomenal and we have achieved a lot so far, but we still have so much more to do.”
Next up for Larne in Europe are Paços de Ferreiras of Portugal, with the away leg on Thursday night and London giants Spurs awaiting the winners in the next round.
“We went into the lion’s den in Denmark and it’ll be the same again in Portugal,” said Clements. “But Tiernan had a brilliant game plan for Aarhus and I’m sure it’ll be the same again this week.”