So we move from Ballymena in a south – easterly direction to Carrickfergus on our next stop. From seven towers to one castle if you like. Speaking to a few local fans about this series one or two felt Carrick were lucky to get on the list due to their sporadic residence in the top flight but I will hear none of it.
For a start this series isn’t necessarily about top flight clubs per se but in reality Carrick earn their place due to a number of things. Let’s see how we go. One of those ‘things’ would be listening to a couple of youngsters a few years ago arguing at a bus stop that Carrickfergus was not Carrick and he was going to the match when he saw Carrick written on the board. Hope they made it.
I’m not going to make any apology for stating that for loads of observers the Irish Cup win of 1976 still hovers around the club like a name on a house. Like Southampton that very same year who dumbfounded everyone by beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final, Carrick’s win over Linfield as a junior club not only not only rattled the football nation, but hard wired those victories into those two clubs’ DNA in non – dissolvable stitches. It may seem a long time ago for many, but the scrolled writing on the northern end of their ground should be noticed and understood by all who attend. It was a huge achievement. Nipper that I was at the time and not tuned into sport, it was such a big deal it transcended beyond the football bubble and permeated not just my tiny head but most of Northern Ireland. The names of Gary Prenter and Jimmy Brown hang in permanent amber rainbow above the town. The nature and story of that Cup Final win have added lustre not just to Carrickfergus, town and football club, but to the competition itself which continues to this day.
I can’t quite let that chapter stop there just yet either. As winners they entered the now sadly defunct European Cup – Winners Cup competition and put Aris Bonnevoie of Luxembourg to the sword. Bizarrely, who would they draw in the next round but their, if not mirror image, certainly reflection, in the form of Southampton who ended the dream as you would expect. 1976 – year of drought, but not in South – East Antrim.
They next came to mind in the eighties taking their place in the top division. And hey – ho they appeared in the 1984 Irish Cup final after beating Glentoran in the semis to get a sort of double over the big two. Unfortunately, Ballymena lay in wait who were the other Cup giants of that decade and a 4-1 defeat did for Carrick but once again – memories and achievement.
Perhaps it is the proximity of the sea but I know many folk who enjoy the trip to Carrick. The ground, close enough to town with a train station at hand it is a pleasant enough place with aforesaid castle and now groovy marina to spice up the visit. Jumping into more modern times what is quirky is the name of the ground. A lot of fans will refuse to acknowledge the corporate name of their ground when sponsors ‘grab’ the rights for traditional and sentimental reasons. But the sheer clunkiness of the ‘Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena’ has plenty missing the simple and straightforward Taylor’s Avenue for more practical and oral reasons. Let’s not forget the nature of Taylor’s Avenue either with its elevated curve allowing free viewing for many years if you were so inclined.
The ‘Wolves’ of the Irish League is a feature also. Like Glentoran their strip is fairly distinctive and the ‘’Amber Army’ have buttonholed a neat moniker to salute their heroes. The executive involvement of former NI international Michael Hughes maintained the club’s penchant for periodic big news stories. Whilst not presently active I believe he now is very much identified with the club.
More unfortunately in the last few years their soggy pitch vied for rough headlines with Warrenpoint’s floodlight difficulties but this seems to have been sorted. It certainly saw a lively game at the end, and I mean the very end of the 2015/16 season as Miguel Chines’ 93rd minute overhead kick pulled the team out of the licking flames of relegation. The whole town seemed to be there and the whole town went nuts. Proper Irish League fans can appreciate moments like that – big moments for one of the league’s smaller clubs.
The club has caught the managerial headlines in recent times with the highs of the Haveron Times and the hard times of Kieran Harding. Present manager David McAlinden certainly keeps the club in the headlines with his interesting media profile and no doubt their story will continue to fascinate.