Footballers' Lives with Mark Surgenor: I've felt Irish Cup final heartbreak but I'm driven by desire to never let my family down
In the latest of our popular series, Carrick Rangers captain Mark Surgenor tells us about his highs and lows in the game, the joy new daughter Bella has brought into his life, and his plans for the future.
Q. How did your football career begin?
A. I went to Cambridge House Boys' School where there was a strong emphasis on rugby. I moved to Broughshane when I was about eight and I loved rugby up until fifth year. Then I realised I wasn't getting any bigger and it was getting too physical for me. I started to play locally for Braid United in the Ballymena Saturday Morning League. They were great days and we had good players like Mark Leckey. In those days you could play for two teams so I signed for Chimney Corner under Shay Hamill. I can remember playing against Linfield in pre-season friendlies and wondering how Noel Bailie, their captain, was so good because he wasn't particularly fast or big. I went up to head the ball against him, won it and thought, 'This is easy'. Then I looked behind me and he was 10 yards away, bringing the ball down on his chest and moving the play forward. His awareness of the game was fantastic, he was so smart. I then decided to move on to Raceview and then Joe McCall encouraged me to go and play for Ballymoney. Denver Gage was there and we had a great team.
Q. How close were you to joining Crusaders?
A. We had played the Crues in the Irish Cup and I can remember going to speak to their manager Stephen Baxter at Seaview. They had Colin Coates, Stevie McBride, Davy Magowan and Gareth McKeown and I didn't think I had much chance of breaking into the team. Roy Walker, the Ballymena United manager at the time, expressed an interest and that was a no-brainer as I had supported the club all my life. It was a dream come true and Stephen understood my position. I had seven good years at United until Glenn Ferguson let me go but I will always be proud that I played for my hometown team.
Q. How gutted were you to leave United?
A. It was a kick in the teeth and one of the most honest conversations I've had with a manager. It was a really frustrating year for me because I hadn't played enough. Missing out on a place in the 2010 Irish Cup final team was just awful. I was rested for the last three league games with the intention of having a ding dong with Glenavon's Ciaran Martyn but Gary Thompson returned to training the week before and he made it into the team. Gary ended up getting sent off after going for a ball a fit Gary Thompson would have got to. It was my most miserable day in football and I felt massively let down. Your family comes to watch you play and it was humiliating not to be involved. I'm not saying I would have made a massive difference but it was a big low point for me. Then, when I had to leave the club, I felt like quitting the game. I wasn't in the manager's first-team plans. I was angry because I felt I could offer something and playing for United meant a lot to me. At least I was able to make a few lifelong friends, like big Albert Watson.
Q. How close were you to rejoining Ballymena United last summer?
A. David Jeffrey was keen to bring me in and it was a big surprise to be honest. I knew David could get the best out of me but I had given Carrick my word I would speak to their new manager. When I spoke to David it felt like an interview and you could see why he has been so successful. Bryan McLoughlin was with him and he had a laptop and spreadsheet with the wage structures. The sticking block in my head was that he had signed Stephen McAlorum, Michael Gault and Emmet Friars and I feared I might experience another difficult season with my hometown club trying to get into the team. I met David McAlinden who said he wanted to make me captain and be a very important member of his team. I felt it would be disloyal to the club to leave and at the age of 31 I didn't just want to be a squad player. It's a shame I won't play for Ballymena United again but I don't want to finish my career struggling to get games.
Q. Have you experienced good times with Carrick Rangers?
A. Then manager Gary Haveron brought me in and that season was definitely one of the highlights of my career so far. The last day of the season against Ballinamallard when I scored and we avoided relegation was unbelievable. It was great craic and Gary is a football man through and through. If he's given time at Glentoran he will do well.
Q. Where do you work?
A. I'm a PE teacher at Cullybackey College and I love it. It's full of Ballymena United fans and if I've lost a game or done something good or stupid they will remind me about it. Last season we played Ballymena United in the League Cup final and they kept me going for a long time. My wife Pam teaches Business Studies and ICT at Lagan College and when I'm not teaching I'm out on the course playing golf. As a PE teacher now I tell kids to play all different types of sports but the school principal likes to raise my disciplinary record! You sometimes feel like you're a counsellor, a doctor and a health and social worker. There's only so many hours in the day and I can't change the world. It can be mentally tough but all of the parents are great and we have a great support network of both friends and family.
Q. How long have you been married for?
A. Six years this July. We had a reception at the Slieve Russell Hotel, Co Cavan and there was quite a stressful start to the marriage. We didn't stay another night and everyone waved us off with the balloons and a 'Just Married' sign on the car. As I was driving home, there was a lorry in front of me at the Ballygawley roundabout. I pushed it a little to go around him but the next thing I saw these flashing lights from behind. I had to pull in and started shaking, thinking the breathalyser was going to come out. As I was wondering what time I had my last drink at the night before, Pam got out of the car and she was panicking. I thought it was going to be a nightmare start to married life but the police officer said, 'Stick to the limits on the way and if I hear anything on the radio you'll get points on your licence.' Two miles up the road, I stopped and let Pam take over the driving as my hands were shaking too much. Maybe more police officers should referee in the Irish League! Pam is great at recognising people and remembering them... she loves people.
Q. Tell us about the new addition to the family.
A. Bella arrived on November 28. My wife's second name is Bell and I joke with Pam if we get divorced her name will be Bella Bell. I met Pam when I was about 15 in school, we got engaged in 2009 and married in 2012. I proposed on the weekend of the North West 200 and at the Giants Causeway. She started crying and hugged me, so I took that as a yes. We got onto the bus and the driver made an announcement. The Chinese visitors started clapping and I'm standing there like a chicken nugget in the middle of the bus while Pamela is showing everyone the ring. Bella was never really in our immediate plans but on St Patrick's Day, Pam said she was pregnant and we were over the moon. What an experience her birth was, an amazing feeling. Bella is beautiful, a real game changer in your life and it's nice to know she will come down and see me playing football. You see her smiling in the morning and you don't want to go to work. Managers I have worked with always said, 'Don't let your family down and your children down' and that has stuck with me. No one will ever call me a cheat or accuse me of not trying my best because I'm representing my family too. My parents Margaret and Jim would go to most of the games I play in, while my brother Philip is always supportive too. I would never say never with regard to having more children but we are just enjoying Bella right now. I'm lucky to have many best days of my life so far... the day I made my debut for Ballymena United, the day I got engaged, the day I got married and the day Bella was born.
Q. Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A. I loved Albert Watson, who trained the way he played. Michael Smith, who is now at Hearts, always had that drive and determination to do well and he's a smashing fella. As a leader and a person, Allan Jenkins. There was one time his boat from Scotland was delayed, him and Cutchy (Gary McCutcheon) got in the car, drove to the airport, got a flight across and came on for the second half against Crusaders. They played 45 minutes and then went back home - now that's commitment. Allan had time for everyone. Toughest opponent? I can remember Roy Walker telling me not to dive in on David Rainey as he only shoots with his left foot. At the corner of the 18 yard box, he shaped to hit a shot with his right foot and I was 100 per cent certain that he would. He checked back onto his left foot, I missed the block and he bent the ball into the top corner of the net with his left foot. Not surprisingly, Roy said, 'What did I tell you?' at half-time but what a player he was. Stephen Carson and Chris Morrow in their prime were also great players. I felt David Magowan was under-rated too and I'm sure Colin Coates will also happily tell you that.
Q. Have you any amusing stories from your time in football?
A. Alan Davidson is a crazy character and I can remember Ballymena United went to Rotterdam to play in a friendly. Glenn Ferguson wanted to wind up Alan and said that a girl had been calling for him. He wrote the girl's name, Sylvia, and the phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to him. The boys had a laugh but Alan handed it back to Glenn, who put it in his jacket. After we got back home, Glenn's partner found the note which didn't look good after a trip away with the boys! The joke really backfired when Glenn's wife went to wash his jacket the next day!
Q. How long do you think you will play on for?
A. I'm 32-years old now and the injuries are certainly tougher when you're older. I'll review it at the end of every season and then see how I feel about carrying on. The game swallows you up sometimes but that's why you play it. I'm a big Liverpool fan so unfortunately I'm well used to that feeling of disappointment. Playing in different positions has also affected my consistency of performance at times, but football has been a release from home, family and working life and I'm still enjoying it as much as ever.
Date of birth: December 9, 1985
Place of birth: Ballymena
Previous clubs: Ballymoney United, Ballymena United
Carrick Rangers record: Four goals in 100 appearances