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More Irish League Travels And the People You Meet...

The home end at Carrick Rangers’ modest little Taylor’s Avenue stadium.

He should have won the game for Glentoran in the dying embers at Coleraine two weeks previously. “I’d just come on and everything happened so fast.”

He did win the game late on for Glentoran last weekend at Carrick Rangers.

Former Manchester United Academy player and Gillingham winger Navid Nasseri opened his Irish League goalscoring account at the Loughshore Hotel Arena, as commercially expansive a name as you’ll ever hear for the ground we all know better as Taylor’s Avenue.

Nasseri’s explosive finish was enough to edge Glentoran home in a game lacking quality moments and still fewer goalscoring opportunities.

The town of Carrickfergus was the next destination in my Irish football odyssey. The town’s name is from the Irish, Carraig Fhearghais, meaning ‘Fergus’ Rock’ and is one of the oldest towns in the whole of Ireland, pre-dating Belfast, the northern capital. The current population is just under 30,000.

Carrick’s main feature is the castle, built on the rock of Fergus, by Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy in 1177. The impressive landmark remains widely known as one of the best preserved Norman castles in Ireland.

The wonderful 12th century Carrickfergus castle.

Carrickfergus is also the town where the Dutch dude, King William of Orange landed in 1690, kicking off 300 years of religious strife in Ireland, yet what impressed me more, was the number of Glentoran fans who made the journey on the last Saturday before Christmas. Amazing how some newfound confidence and belief in an erstwhile struggling club can reignite its disenfranchised fanbase.

Carrick Rangers, the host club had been formed just before the second world war, 1939, when two teams from the Co Antrim town’s Summer League, Barn Mills and Bubbles, amalgamated.

After progressing through various junior and intermediate leagues the club was elected to senior football in 1983, seven years after their greatest-ever triumph, defeating Linfield 2-1 to win the Irish Cup and going on to play in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Carrick remain the last club from outside the top division in Northern Ireland to win the Irish Cup, a feat performed only three times in history.

The Gers were to perennially struggle in the top flight though, eventually losing their status in 1995, and after returning in 2011, there have been two more promotions and relegations.

But they weren’t the first club to bring top-tier Irish League football to the town. From 1923 to 1928, Barn contested five Irish League seasons, finishing bottom, bottom and one from bottom over their last three.

The Barn name was resurrected in 1954 when Barn United, the current Northern Amateur League club, was formed, and they occupy Haslett Park which is as close to Carrick Rangers’ modest Taylor’s Avenue stadium as you can possibly get.

Carrick’s largest crowd of the season last Saturday witnessed an emotionally-charged afternoon. It would’ve been enough that it was Carrick’s first game since the untimely passing of their young player, 24-year-old Jerry Thompson, without news filtering through pre-game, on the passing of Glentoran captain Marcus Kane’s baby boy, Harrie.

An even heavier cloud hung over the occasion than originally expected. Players from both sides emerged wearing amber Carrick Rangers shirts, with the initials JT and the number 21 on the back, and took their places in an arc around the centre-circle facing the main grandstand.

Players from both teams all bearing amber Carrick Rangers shirts, formed an arc round the centre-circle to pay their respects

Jerry Thompson’s family members including mother Leanne, sister and 8 month old son were guests of the Carrick club, and took part in a short ceremony just prior to the teams’ entrance.

In keeping with the great outpouring of support throughout the Irish League community, the minute silence, impeccably observed, was broken towards the end only by NIR’s 1425 from Larne Harbour, ambivalently clunking its way along the nearby line to Belfast.

We’d used a similar travel template as for the recent trip to Coleraine. Bangor to Belfast Central, jump off for a quick (expensive) pint and catch the Larne train to Carrick as it comes through from Great Victoria Street.

You don’t expect to see a passenger on a Belfast platform with a Norwich City bench-coat on (do they still call them bench-coats?). He saw my surprise, came over and said, “You think that’s strange? A fella’ got off earlier with a Colchester United one on.”

Actually, I still don’t believe he was being serious, but you never know…

Getting back on the train the inevitable happens. Tucker meets someone he knows. If I ever take a journey anywhere with Tucker, and he doesn’t bump into a familiar face, I’d buy a lottery ticket at its conclusion. It’s probably as rare as Haley’s Comet. Actually, Tucker probably knows Haley!

I soon learn Tucker’s acquaintance is called Paul. Awful at remembering names, this one won’t be a problem for me. The chat’s good, the trip passes quickly, Paul alights at Carrick’s main station for a bite to eat, we go on to Downshire Halt to take the shorter walk to the stadium.

There’s an elderly lady, someone’s grandmother, sat on a bench at the small shelter, smoking an e-cigarette as we move along the platform. “Hello Geraldine,” Tucker says. We keep walking, I’m also laughing and shaking my head at the same time. Geraldine’s now in our slipstream and Tucker turns and confirms with her the shortest route to the stadium.

“Was that lady on the train, or was she just sitting there?” I ask.

“She might’ve been on the train, but I just saw her sitting there,” replied Tucker.

“So how do you know her then?”

“I used to work up here and had to drive her in the mini-bus.”

Further evidence, if it was ever needed, that Tucker knows everybody.

Glentoran’s Croatian midfielder Hrvoje Plum prepares to take a free-kick.

The game was a poor one. It’s rarely a classic at Carrick’s little stadium with sloping pitch that would give Yeovil Town’s Huish Park a run for its money for the ground with the greatest roll-off. Certainly neither could ever be a billiard table.

Head coach, Niall Currie had done admirably as manager for several years at Ards FC, before moving to hometown club Portadown. A dream-move for Currie, things didn’t go so well for him, but it’s his Ards’ form that followed him to Carrick Rangers, not the trend from his troubled time at Shamrock Park.

Perennial strugglers Rangers, winners 7 times in the league this season and eight points above the relegation play-off spot, Currie’s tutelage has given the Amber Army a better than average chance of top-flight survival this season. They’re also a decent side at home. And with all the ‘more important than football’ circumstances, surrounding this one, the game always promised to be a battle and a tight one at that.

The pace was relentless, not one creative player on the pitch truly mastered the conditions, the sides closed each other down incredibly quickly. There was no space in which to play.
By the time Nasseri struck, it was already the long-held belief of those around us in the little 400-seater grandstand, that ‘one goal would win this one’.

So it proved, although a game that hung in the balance up to the critical 75th minute, might have swung further away from Carrick afterwards but for two good stops by Hogg as the game headed towards its conclusion. Yet playing down the slope, they still managed to cause some late anxiety in the Glentoran rearguard.

Peers was peerless however and the visitors saw the game out, recording a tenth successive league match without defeat. Something that hasn’t happened since October 2008.

Welcome to... Carrick Rangers FC

The short walk back to Downshire Halt overlooking Belfast Lough, and we’re soon back on the train home. Customarily we change at Belfast Central and another Glentoran fan walks over to talk.

When he does, a distinct English accent is easily detectable. A Doncaster Rovers fan, who splits his time between his Yorkshire home and Belfast.

Doncaster Rovers and Norwich City on the same train platform in Belfast on the same day? A real head-scratcher that… Maybe there really was someone with a Colchester United coat earlier after all.

I guess it was just was just that sort of day. Bit weird…