EXPRESS sports editor Mike Glendinning is following their Silkmen on their Irish tour - here's his first report from the Emerald Isle ...
Arrived at Belfast International Airport this morning and jumped on the bus straight to the heart of Belfast.
The Europa hotel is right around the corner and it is, it must be said, quite stunning.
Among the dignitaries who have rested their weary heads here are Bill Clinton, broadcast legends Sir Trevor McDonald and Terry Wogan, well-spoken cad Nigel Havers, Lionel ‘Three Times a Lady’ Richie and a host of high-profile politicians. At the bargain basement end of the celebrity scale, Darren Day, Atomic Kitten and Lisa Riley from Emmerdale Farm were here too. There is no suggestion that any Big Brother ‘stars’, Bob Carolgees or that bloke from the Halifax adverts have stayed here, but if they were to visit Belfast, I wouldn’t blame them if they did. It’s lovely.
There’s only time for a brief look round the area and a siesta (I was up at 4am to catch my flight from Liverpool) before I look at making my way to Larne FC for the opening game of Macc’s tour.
I arrive at Larne’s Inver ground in plenty of time for the evening kick-off and meet up with Macc Town chief executive, Patrick Nelson. He’s over for this game but will miss Thursday’s game at Distillery as he’s flying back first thing tomorrow.
Keith Alexander has named a much changed team from the previous evening’s exertions against Blackburn. Jonny Brain is, not unreasonably, the goalkeeper.
In possibly Macc’s youngest back four in their Football League history, Izak Reid and James Jennings are the full-backs, with Shaun Brisley and Matthew Flynn between them (testament to the efforts of Messrs Askey and Holgate back at the Moss Rose academy).
Three more academy lads, Nick Blackman, Christian Millar and Jordan Hadfield, are joined by Neil Harvey in midfield and Gareth Evans partners Simon Yeo up front.
During the first half, I join the hosts’ directors and quickly realise just how revered Alexander is in these parts. Each has a different Keith-related tale to tell, and none could speak highly enough of him.
It turns out he scored a fair number of goals while over here - he could play a bit, as well as being a top manager you know.
As far as the game goes, both sides find the going slighty tricky on a sloping pitch with uneven bounce and a fair amount of sand throughout.
Countless efforts from the Silkmen sail high over the bar as they dominate the half but can’t find their shooting boots.
Less than five minutes after the break, the unchanged Silkmen take the lead. Harvey, who had switched flanks with Blackman to try (in vain) to make something happen in the first period, sent over a good cross that was turned in by an unfortunate defender.
The Harbour Rats netted a good leveller shortly afterwards, their skipper finding the bottom corner of the goal.
Midway through the half, Blackman bears down on goal and is dumped to the turf by a backtracking defender. In a competitive game, the Larne man would be off but the man in the middle deems the hack not even deserving of a yellow card. Typically of the event, no one is outraged by it. JJ’s pot-shot from the resulting free-kick is gathered by the home side keeper.
Reid, the only player to put in a 90-minute shift on both nights, fizzed a shot wide after being given licence to roam down the right and the Larne goalscorer was inches away from his second goal. An excellent volley crashes off the underside of the bar with Brain beaten. The stopper did collect the follow-up header however, and the match looks set to peter out into a draw. Any changes that Alexander thought about making seem unlikely, judging by the inactivity of the sidelined Silkmen. The only movement in the two-tiered dugout is Gritts pulling up his socks. That’s only to keep the chill off his calves though.
With seconds left on the clock, Evans’ shot is parried by the Larne keeper and veteran marksman Simon Yeo pounces onto the rebound to hit the winner and his first for the club.
Despite a couple of tasty challenges that leave Jennings and captain Hadfield nursing a bruise or two, it’s handshakes all round at the end and the Inver club’s hospitality extends into the night as Patrick and I are made to feel like kings, even being waved off by the entire board as we make our way back to Belfast. The club narrowly missed out on a place in the top flight of Northern Irish football last season for a number of off-field reasons. They assure me that they’re in shape to earn a top spot this season and I wish them well.
En route, Patrick assures me that, after countless family holidays in Northern Ireland as a kid, he knows where he is going. He doesn’t.
After a couple of laps of the city, he eventually finds the Europa, where I enlist the help of the concierge to direct the hapless Express columnist back to his lodgings, a mere couple of hundred yards away.
Fried soda bread – delicious.
I meet up with chairman Mike Rance for a drive to the players’ hotel, situated on the road to Antrim.
It’s cold and wet but the lads seem hungry for action. There are a few stiff muscles around – Jonny Brain has a stiff neck and a few others have the odd niggle to keep masseur Paul Geaney and physio Nicky Reid busy, while kitman Paul Etchells is on the search for pound coins for the washing machines. Apparently the country is on a go-slow for a national bank holiday and he can’t find a laundrette open anywhere.
On the field behind the hotel, there’s plenty of ballwork on the go and Keith shows a neat touch during the five-a-sides. Once he’s got his goal, he calls an end to proceedings and his charges are given the rest of the afternoon off.
I spoke to Shaun Brisley about facing Blackburn strikers one night and then the Rats the following evening.
He admits that he thrived on the challenge of facing Premiership players, who try to out-think their markers whereas, in the league, the forwards tend to rely on brawn to get past them. The young lad is in fine form and his progress is going to be very interesting.
It turns out that the team flew out here even earlier than I did – Keith and Gary Simpson grabbed a few hours’ kip in the manager’s office at the Moss. The pair have worked together for years too share a few memories of the good old days and you understand why he loves it over here. The management team are right at home here and I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the tour will bring.
They are leaving the players to their own devices after tea - there's a pool table but little else at the hotel so they might go off into town later on. Keith and Simmo meanwhile, are off to find somewhere to watch Linfield face Dinamo Zagreb that evening.
On the way back to Belfast, Mike outlines the plans for the visit of Cheng Du Blades. After the Blues at the Blues event last week, he is hopeful that the thousands of bi-lingual flyers that arrived at the club this week will tap into the Chinese communities of cities nearby and bring a big crowd down to Macc.