Belfast Telegraph

Do You want pure football? Try the Irish League...

By Steven Beacom

Sometimes in life you just get lucky. Ever wanted to watch a movie with Al Pacino sitting beside you?

Ever fancied going to the theatre and having Kenneth Branagh talk you through it?

Or maybe going to a gig with Noel Gallagher in your ear about the lead singer's stage presence?

I had my own football heaven last Saturday at Taylor's Avenue, home of Carrick Rangers Football Club.

I was there in an official capacity, representing the Belfast Telegraph, sponsors of Championship 1 in the Northern Ireland Football League.

My job was to present the trophy.

Carrick needed to beat bottom club Dundela to become champions and gain promotion to the Irish Premiership. Failure to win and nearest title rivals Bangor were primed to take advantage.

Carrick may have come from 21 points behind first place (yes, you read that right: 21 points) to top the table but understandably there were nerves in the side with a place in Northern Ireland's big league at stake.

Dundela had not come to lie down and in Matthew Ferguson, son of Irish League legend and current Ballymena United boss Glenn, they had one of the most accomplished performers on the pitch.

Still, Carrick eventually got the job done, winning 1-0 thanks to a well worked Aaron Harmon goal.

Once the final whistle blew the party began. I've known inspirational manager Gary Haveron and members of his backroom staff like Graeme Arthur and Nathan McConnell for years. They have all played at higher levels, but the pride in their faces told you how much this success meant.

The players, from classy skipper Harmon to veteran Miguel Chines could not stop smiling. You couldn't help but join in yourself.

The fans were in joyful mood too. Carrick have a loyal, and noisy, band of supporters who follow them everywhere. They were joined by hundreds more on Saturday revelling in seeing their home town team reach the top flight and relishing the prospect of watching Linfield, Glentoran, Cliftonville plus new champions Crusaders at Taylor's Avenue next season.

Anyway back to where I started and getting lucky... and being fortunate enough to watch the match with one of Northern Ireland's most gifted footballers, the magnificent Michael Hughes, majority shareholder at Carrick, former manager and very much a massive fan.

Hughes was a superb player for various clubs and his country. The man could play. Ask Germany who he always seemed to score against.

Ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who Michael cost a league title in 1995. Ask any of his team-mates.

On Saturday he went through all the emotions of a supporter as Carrick edged over the line. At one stage he couldn't bear to watch.

When he did look, he did so with a knowing eye, with a word of praise when someone produced a deft touch of skill, which was his trademark, and a cheer when Carrick broke the deadlock.

Here was a guy who played at the highest level in England, was revered by the Green and White Army and he was living and breathing every moment of an Irish League Championship 1 match. It was fascinating to witness.

I asked him what he felt about Irish League football in comparison to the Premier League in England which he lit up on numerous occasions.

"I think it is a purer form of football over here," he said.

We chatted about the obscene amount of money across the water and what players who have yet to truly prove themselves were earning or turning down and how football in the Irish League was more like the football you grew up playing when money never came into it.

I must admit I do know some local footballers who are money orientated but not many.

In any case Hughesy was right. Sure, the part-time Irish League will never approach the Premier League in terms of quality, superstar names, glitz, glamour and global recognition, but it has qualities of its own, like reminding us why we loved the game in the first place: for the sport, the playing and the glory. Just like everyone at Carrick Rangers, including Michael Hughes, experienced last weekend.

Pure joy. Pure football.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph