Nine months of pain, despair, and disappointment will end with Carrick Rangers condemned to relegation.
At least that’s how the vast majority of NIFL fans and ‘experts’ expect the incoming season to pan out. Those associated with the County Antrim team, however, have not given up that easily.
The summer has been filled with a flurry of activity. Former Larne manager, and captain of Carrick’s Championship winning team of 2011, David McAlinden, replaced Aaron Callaghan as manager. He brought in the backroom staff who had worked with him last year at Inver Park.
The playing panel, which to be fair was already weak, was even more depleted after some key players departed to pastures new. The squad required a major overhaul.
McAlinden, importantly, retained regular first-teamers Aaron Smyth, Lee Chapman, Mark Surgenor, Paddy McNally, Fra Rice, Chris Morrow and Eamon McAllister. Their experience of the 2016/17 relegation dog fight may play a crucial part in the months ahead.
With McAlinden operating within a tight budget, the challenge of building a squad good enough to keep Carrick Rangers in the top flight for a third successive year seems almost impossible, though that’s not a phrase the manager will allow to be used at the club.
The new manager has brought in tried and tested players Denver Gage, Michael Smith, Stuart McMullan and Gavin Taggart.
Gage has over a decade of experience behind him with Ballymena United (three separate spells), Ards and Ballyclare Comrades. The no-nonsense centre back will also be expected to be among the goalscorers from set pieces: he was joint top scorer for Ards with ten goals in their Championship1 title campaign.
Midfielder Michael Smith is another player who has featured for Ballymena United, though he spent much of his career at Larne, playing under McAlinden last season.
Playing in the number eight shirt this season will be seasoned midfielder Gavin Taggart, though he will miss a couple of the opening games due to a carry over suspension from his last club: yes, you’ve guessed it – Ballymena United. Gavin replaces namesake Glenn in the squad, with the latter retiring after 21 years at the club.
McMullan is a central defender signed from Ards, who has also played for Coleraine. More of a ball player than out-and-out centre half, McAlinden is more likely to field him when electing to play with a back five, rather than flat back four.
Although not experienced in the Irish League, Crusaders loanee Mikel Suarez has played for Boston United and Tonbridge Wells in England. The Spaniards is the tallest player in the panel, but his height belies an ability to hold up the ball and bring in supporting players.
McAlinden has also used his experience of the lower leagues to scour for the young talent he hopes will be able to make the step up to the big time.
The most recent addition, goalkeeper Harry Doherty, joined from Finn Harps. He has under age caps with the Republic of Ireland and has had spells across the Irish Sea with Brighton & Hove Albion and Charlton Athletic, but lacks first team experience.
New left-back Mark Edgar has also been across the water, with Blackburn Rovers. He returned to Northern Ireland last year to sign for Coleraine but found first team opportunities limited.
Former Glentoran striker Martin Maybin has come home after a few years in the States, where he played for Regis Rangers and Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Former Carrick player, Chris Trussell, has re-joined from Ballyclare Comrades where he was a regular goal scorer.
At lot is heaped on the shoulders of Dale Malone, who will be pushing hard for a starting place up front as well. He arrives as a genuine prospect from Lurgan Celtic, where he helped the Championship side reach the semi-final last year’s Irish Cup.
Teenager striker Andrew Mooney was drafted in from Cliftonville. He’s another player who McAlinden knows well, having been on loan at Larne last season, where he was a regular scorer.
Another former Larne player now at Carrick is defender Michael McKenna. He moved to he Inver Park side from Carrick last year, and on performances so far in pre-season, the youngster has benefitted from a year in Championship1.
Finally, neither a regular from last team’s first team or a new signing, but reserve team player Daniel Lamour has impressed in training and friendlies so far and rightly earned a squad number. The young centre back had a couple of outings in the senior team at the tail end of last season.
So, that is the basis of the squad that will wear the Amber shirt. No doubt McAlinden will continue to look for opportunities to strengthen the panel, and I would not rule out another signing or two, possibly on loan, before the transfer window closes.
The pundits may have already written off Carrick Rangers, and they may well prove correct. One thing is for sure, though: we ain’t going down without a fight.
Batten down the hatches.