Michael Hughes: Larne or Carrick can be top dogs again
Northern Ireland great Michael Hughes wants to see two clubs close to his heart back in the top flight of Irish League football.
First though he is sure that Larne and Carrick Rangers will put on a thrilling Irish Cup tie at Inver Park tomorrow.
The east Antrim outfits are enjoying fine seasons, with Carrick, under the promising management of Gary Haveron, winning the Steel and Sons Cup at Seaview on Christmas Day and Larne pushing for promotion from Belfast Telegraph Championship 1 to the Danske Bank Premiership.
Larne are in third place in the table at present hot on the heels of frontrunners Bangor and Ards and while Carrick are in eighth position, they are not out of the running to go up either because they have so many games in hand.
Hughes, a Windsor Park favourite thanks to numerous outstanding performances in 71 appearances for Northern Ireland, is from Larne and started his career at Carrick, where in recent times he has been the boss and majority shareholder, so he knows these neighbouring clubs well.
"It's fantastic to see Carrick and Larne having good seasons," said former Manchester City and West Ham star Hughes.
"I think both clubs are on the up and I would love to see the pair of them return to the top division in the Irish League sooner rather than later.
"That would be great for east Antrim, which has such strong football links.
"I also feel it would be good news for the Irish League as a whole because both clubs have real potential.
"Larne are up near the top of the table and going well and the Irish Cup game with Carrick should be a good one.
"I've had a close affinity with Carrick for a long time and in particular in recent years and I was delighted when the boys won the Steel and Sons Cup.
"It was the first time I have ever been a spectator at a game on Christmas Day and it was an enjoyable experience. Gary is doing a fine job as manager and the players delivered on the big day beating H&W Welders 4-1. It was an excellent performance.
"For Carrick Rangers to win a trophy in what was a high profile final can hopefully help kick the club on. The team has a lot of games in hand in the league but with the confidence in the side now the boys will feel they can quickly move up the table.
"I'm sure both Larne and Carrick would relish a good Irish Cup run too and whoever wins at the weekend might just have one."
While the quality of a high class player like Hughes may not be on show at Inver Park tomorrow, each side has impressive performers who will savour playing in front of a sizeable derby crowd, not least Carrick's in-form defender Aaron Smyth and former Linfield ace Stuart King, who is a strong influence on and off the field for David McAlinden's Larne team.
Meanwhile, the BT Sport Manager of the Month for December is Linfield chief Warren Feeney.
It's Feeney's first award after taking over from the legendary David Jeffrey in the summer.
The former Northern Ireland international just needs another 31 awards to catch up with his illustrious predecessor.
Linfield ended December on top of the Danske Bank Premiership after four straight wins against Ballymena United, Ballinamallard United, Portadown and Glentoran to make it a straightforward decision for the football writers.