When 15-year-old Matthew Shevlin became the youngest ever goalscorer for Ballymena United last weekend, it was yet another feather in the cap for progressive Northern Amateur Football League newcomers Carniny Amateurs.
The talented schoolboy was a product for the club’s youth system, Carniny Youth, as their top goal-scorer for six successive seasons, and now looks set to take the Northern Ireland Football League by storm.
And along with the obvious pride of Shevlin’s family and friends to see him making such an immediate impact in his fledgling senior career, those who followed his progress through the youth ranks at Carniny have rightly been delighted to see his rise to prominence.
It is just one of several landmarks for Carniny Youth that coach David Hanna has been delighted to witness for his club this season. The other major one has been leading Carniny Amateurs to the promised land of the Amateur League for the first ever time as their player-manager.
Reflecting on Shevlin’s achievement, he remarked: “It is absolutely brilliant… he scored after just 90 seconds on the pitch – you couldn’t ask for more.
“It bodes well for us, too. He went to the Foyle Cup in July last year with our Under-16s, and a lot of the young boys still in our youth set-up will see what can be achieved, and it will help push them on. The quality is there alright.”
Carniny Youth currently comprises of ten teams from Under-10 up to Under-19 level, as well as a football development centre for Under-6s to Under-9s. And while Shevlin’s story has got everyone talking, the concept of players leaving Carniny is something Hanna and his colleagues have become accustomed to on a regular basis.
The Amateurs boss explained: “That was one of the big reasons for us joining the Amateur League from the Northern Ireland Intermediate League. We have lost 20 players over the last two seasons, and we couldn’t keep going that way.
“What it comes down to is that Ballymena is a complete Saturday morning football town, and once a lot of our players hit their early 20s, they end up going to other teams in the area who play on a Saturday morning, like Harryville Homers, Carniny Rangers and All Saints. The success of the Homers winning seven trophies has made it difficult for us to compete.”
So now Carniny find themselves with a new challenge. With just one win from their opening eight Division 2C fixtures, it hasn’t exactly been a blistering opening from the debutants, but Hanna is realistic about the task in hand.
He said: “This year is going to be a grind, with the transition of our young first team. It will probably take a year for them to get their footing in the league.
“I have a couple of friends in work who play for Larne Tech and Islandmagee, and they told me not to take the Amateur League lightly. You have a lot of teams down there who are good enough to move up into intermediate football, but can’t because of their facilities.”
The big question surely has to be, what guarantee is there that this set of young players won’t go the same way of those before them… namely off to other Ballymena-based teams.
“There is no guarantee,” he conceded. “I suppose a lot of it will come down to our success in the Amateur League. Over time, the younger players will see the senior team winning and they will buy into it.”
Another step in that process lies in wait for Hanna and his players this weekend with the visit of Bangor Swifts to the Ballymena Showgrounds.
With the Swifts hailing from 1C, three divisions above the Amateurs, there is no weight of expectation on the Co Antrim men, and Hanna feels this may suit them.
He added: “We are going into it as underdogs with nothing to lose. It will let us see where we are at, and hopefully we are able to prove ourselves.
“Who knows, it might even be the turning point in our season?”