With the dust well and truly settled on another season for East Antrim’s ‘big three’, we take a look back at the highs and lows of what’s been another action-packed year for Carrick Rangers, Larne and Ballyclare Comrades.
Where do you even begin to start with Gary Haveron’s charges? Well, with the treble, that’s where.
Carrick have been knocking on the door for few seasons now and they were among many people’s favourites to be in the promotion mix come the end of the season. But no-one - not even the most die-hard of fans - saw a three-trophy haul coming. Not in their wildest dreams.
On May 1, Carrick became the first club since Larne in 1970 to win the Steel and Sons Cup, the league and the Intermediate Cup in one campaign. For the Amber Army, who cheekily chanted ‘Are you watching Inver Park?’ when they were crowned as Championship 1 kingpins, it’s been a remarkable year which, most importantly, has catapulted them back to the top-flight for the first time since 2012.
It’s been well documented (but it’s worth mentioning again) that the Gers were 21 points off the pace at one stage, and they showed true grit and resolve to battle through a ridiculous fixtures pile-up in March and April. But you can bet your bottom dollar that not one of the players, management team or board members were complaining about fatigue. They won game after game and that momentum saw them over the line to pip long-time favourites Bangor by two points.
The one that set the Taylor’s Avenue men on their way was the Steel and Sons Cup. Their electric display on Christmas Day surely sent a huge message to the rest of their league stablemates. I’ve had people tell me the Welders didn’t turn up that day, but the fact remains that Carrick were outstanding. Everything clicked and they were deserved winners.
In February the club lost one of their own in Charlie Johnston. First and foremost a Rangers fan, Charlie was club secretary and a dedicated servant at Carrick. He was part of the furniture at Taylor’s Avenue and he hasn’t been forgotten. The players paid tribute to him during the Irish Cup defeat to Crusaders by donning pre-match warm-up shirts emblazoned with the name and number ‘Johnston 12’ and the fans poignantly sang his name after the Intermediate Cup victory.
Fast forward a few months and there was the coaching badges issue with Haveron officially stepping aside as manager to allow the club to attain a Championship licence. A hugely influential figure in the dressing room, he remained a towering presence as first-team coach and Carrick’s success is largely down to his hard work, infectious enthusiasm, his knowledge of the local game and man-management skills. No doubt, when he gains his UEFA ‘B’ in June, we’ll see him back as boss.
If Haveron was the main man in the dugout, Miguel Chines and Conor McCloskey were the ones to watch on the park. Veteran frontman Chines rattled in 28 goals in all competitions, while McCloskey’s technical ability shone through. The midfielder really was the man for the big occasion, scoring in both finals. No wonder he already is on the radar of some the Irish League’s big guns.
With so much achieved this year, Carrick’s real battle begins now. The quest to consolidate in the Premiership is a huge task but there truly is something about this particular group of players that tells me it is possible. The club will have to hold on to its best players and add more quality, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them upset the odds next term.
Star man: Conor McCloskey.
Sharpshooter: Miguel Chines, 28 goals in all competitions.
Season rating: 10/10.
Davy McAlinden’s first full season in charge of Larne brought reasons to be cheerful for the Inver faithful.
The club’s league campaign may have ended on a bit of damp squib after they failed to win any of their last six encounters but, in the grand scheme of things, a fifth-placed finish was no mean feat.
The Reds had finished ninth in 2013-14 after McAlinden had taken over from Graham McConnell in the autumn. The ex-Cliftonville man steadily went about making his mark in management and got a big chance to put his stamp on things in the summer transfer window.
In a major overhaul of the squad, the former Carrick skipper introduced 14 new faces to the club. Without a shadow of a doubt his most significant capture was Ciaran Murray who arrived from Immaculata. In a blistering first campaign at Championship level, the deadly frontman scored a superb 28 goals in all competitions - a magnificent return.
Despite a 4-1 opening-day win over Ballyclare, Larne got off to a slow start in the league and seemed to be jinxed by 2-1 defeats, of which there were three before they got another three points on the board with 3-0 success at Dundela.
In October, the club celebrated its 125th anniversary with big names from yesteryear joining the current crop of local stars to mark the occasion. Chief guest was ex-Linfield supremo David Jeffrey who was full of praise for the club which had given him his first experience in management. And in an interview with the Times, Jeffrey said he was delighted to see McAlinden doing so well in the hot-seat.
“I was really pleased when David McAlinden came to Larne. I think he’s a really bright, good, young manager. If he is given the same opportunity - albeit I was assistant-manager - it will certainly help,” he said.
That high praise must have spurred McAlinden on because by the end of November he had steered Larne to second spot in the league table.
With no league games to speak of in December, and their involvement in the Steel and Sons brought to an end with an earlier best-forgotten fourth-round defeat at Sport and Leisure Swifts, Larne began 2015 with another win against the Duns. They also had a tasty home draw in the Irish Cup against rivals Carrick to look forward to.
However, the derby was abandoned after just 28 minutes when midfielder Scott Irvine suffered serious injuries when he collided with a perimeter wall after an innocuous challenge with Conor McCloskey.
Messages of support flooded in for Irvine as he began the slow process of recovery. The club rallied around and in a brilliant gesture, decided to donate the gate money from the replay to the stricken Greenisland native. On April 18, much to the delight of the fans, Irvine announced he has signed a new contract with the club.
From mid-February to mid-March Larne went on a four-game unbeaten run but a 3-2 defeat at Dergview signalled the start of a poor run of form which saw them suffer a last-minute defeat to Carrick and lose 5-0 by the Welders. Despite those dips there were chinks of light with a 1-1 draw against Bangor who narrowly missed out on promotion.
On the whole, the signs are there that Larne, described so often as a sleeping giant of the Irish League, could just be beginning to wake from their slumber. One thing’s for sure, the Invermen have a lot to look forward to next season and if McAlinden delivers in his bid to add quality over quantity in the transfer market, don’t be surprised to see them in the reckoning come April 2016.
Star man: Ciaran Murray. The former amateur league striker has been a revelation since he arrived at the club last summer.
Sharpshooter: Ciaran Murray, 28 goals in all competitions.
Season rating: 7/10.
At one stage it looked touch-and-go for the Comrades but they beat the drop and lived to fight another day in Championship 1.
As it turned out, it was a season of transition for the Reds who lost player-manager Eddie Hill in March after he quit the role. Less than 24 hours after his decision to stand down, the club’s board handed his assistant, former Ballymena United reserve-team boss, David Dorrian the job.
Dorrian, who had replaced Gary Bell as Hill’s number two, had the immediate task of keeping the Dixon Park outfit up. Having galvanised the squad, he did just that with a crucial successes against the Welders, Dundela and, most importantly, over Jamesy Kirk’s PSNI who had previously sent them packing on spot-kicks in round one of the Steel and Sons Cup.
Early in campaign, the opening-day defeat to neighbours Larne wasn’t how Ballyclare had planned to kick off the season but they certainly made up for it with three successive wins on the spin followed by the scalp of Warren Feeney’s Linfield in the League Cup.
Chris Trussell scored the only goal in the 1-0 win over the Blues but it was to be one of only eight goals throughought the season for the big centre-forward. In the 2013-14 camppaign, the Carrick native had rattled in 27 in 33 appearances.
The mantle of top goalscorer was passed to Randal Reid who netted 12 times, while Joel Cooper continued his development, scoring eight times from midfield. Andrew Simpson, once of Nortel, equalled that tally.
The League Cup success against Linfield threw up an away clash with Ballymena United where they went down 3-1.
In the Irish Cup, the Reds went as far as the sixth round only to be narrowly defeated at home on penalties to Premiership outfit Dungannon Swifts.
No doubt, new man Dorrian will want to put his stamp on things during the summer and aim to better the club’s ninth-place finish.
Star men: Joel Cooper and Kyle Buckley. Cooper caught the eye with his attacking ability and Buckley was rightly named Player of the Year.
Sharpshooter: Randal Reid, 12 goals.
Season rating: 5/10.