Irish League Lives: Coleraine hero Stephen Carson on the stint at Rangers that marked him for success

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Stephen Carson during his time at Coleraine

Stephen Carson during his time at Coleraine

Stephen Carson takes on Gennaro Gattuso while on Northern Ireland duty

Stephen Carson takes on Gennaro Gattuso while on Northern Ireland duty

Mandatory Byline.....William Che

Stephen Carson while at Rangers

Stephen Carson while at Rangers

Stephen Carson during his time at Coleraine

Colourful, charismatic and compelling; Stephen Carson is back in town - for a short stay at least!

Even though he has lived in America for the last six years, the Ballymoney accent is still as broad as it was before he left - unlike some of our sporting greats when they move overseas!

Schoolyard sweethearts Stephen and his wife Paula arrived home prior to Christmas for a very special occasion, the birth of their first baby, Phillipa (Pippa).

In many ways, the arrival of his little daughter is the icing on the cake for a guy who enjoyed a wonderful 10-year career in Irish League football before putting his unique skills to the best possible use in the States, where he is now Academy Director of FC Westchester.

Unassuming and down to earth, Stephen can recall with great affection his early days as a young footballer, rubbing shoulders with players like Warren Feeney, Darren Fitzgerald, Colin Nixon and Danny Griffin at the well-respected St Andrews Boys Club, under the leadership of Joe Kincaid.

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Stephen Carson takes on Gennaro Gattuso while on Northern Ireland duty

Stephen Carson takes on Gennaro Gattuso while on Northern Ireland duty

Mandatory Byline.....William Che

Stephen Carson takes on Gennaro Gattuso while on Northern Ireland duty

It was hardly surprising Stephen was recommended to Rangers at the age of 13.

Former Ibrox assistant boss Archie Knox paid Stephen the ultimate compliment by offering him a contract after watching him for only 15 minutes!

"There was interest from Manchester United," recalls Stephen. "But Joe was always good to me, so it was my duty to show him a bit of loyalty.

"I moved over nine days after completing my GCSEs. It was straight into full-time training. There were 13 or 14 apprentices that started but Peter McDonald, Robert Malcolm and I were the only three who completed pre-season without getting injured.

"The demands were so tough, a lot of boys just quit. They couldn't handle it. We were just trying to survive. We were only hoping we were not released and we could earn a contract. When I look back, it was like being in the army.

"I lived with David Moyes's mum and dad along with Maurice Ross, Barry Nicholson and Darren Fitzgerald. Joan used to drive us to the train station. Then we'd get the underground to Ibrox. We had to polish 14 pairs of boots, clean dressing rooms and train twice a day.

"If you were late five minutes, Bomber (John Brown) made us do 5,000 strokes on the rowing machine. There were high standards to be met. You had to wear a shirt and tie every day."

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Stephen Carson while at Rangers

Stephen Carson while at Rangers

Stephen Carson while at Rangers

Stephen made his debut against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, which was a big thrill.

He goes on: "I also played against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup before making my first start at Ibrox against Dundee. I was part of the first team squad for about 25 games. We had some fantastic players - Barry Ferguson, Reyna, Tugay, Albertz, Van Bronckhorst, McCann, Kanchelskis, Mols, Rod Wallace, Ronald De Boer, Tore Andre Flo and Amoruso - all top professionals.

"Walter Smith was my manager for the first year before Dick Advocaat came in."

After five years at Ibrox, Stephen moved on to Dundee United.

"I turned it down at first," he remembers.

"At the end of the season, Stoke City, Dundee United and Kilmarnock came in. I travelled down to Stoke to have a look, but felt it was a better option to stay in Scotland.

"So I decided to sign for Dundee United in August. They paid £150,000 for me, but I had bad vibes from the start. They asked me what shirt number I wanted. I said 11. They told me I could have either 2 or 27. Then manager Alex Smith explained he wanted to use me as a right winger.

"I played around 30 games in two seasons at United and most of my best performances came on the left. We finished up playing without wingers to accommodate Charlie Miller, who was a great player and a great guy."

Barnsley was Stephen's next stop off, where he was an instant success.

"I scored a few goals and had something like 12 assists in 15 games," he adds.

"Paula, then my girlfriend, and I were happy living in Leeds.

"Although there were financial problems, there was talk about new deals. Because the club was in administration, we could only sign month-to-month contracts.

"But everything came tumbling down. To get players in, they had to offload. When they signed Jon Walters, I was one of the fall guys."

At 23 years of age, Stephen reckoned it was time to return home.

"The problem was I didn't want to play for fun or for a laugh - I wanted to be a success," he adds.

"I was close to joining Portadown, but when I spoke to Coleraine chairman David Cameron, he sold the club to me.

"He admitted he couldn't offer me a lot of money because of the club's pay structure. But I also got a job out of it. Marty Quinn was boss and I felt it was the club for me, there was great energy about the place.

"I remember training with (Jody) Tolan, (Pat) McAllister, (Paul) Gaston, (Stuart) Clanachan, (Davy) O'Hare, Barry Johnston, Stephen Beatty, Gerry Flynn and Gary Haveron - all good pros.

"Marty was a phenomenal manager. I needed a boss who had a bit of faith in me. Unfortunately, the club's financial difficulties surfaced a couple of years later and, when it went into administration, Roy Coyle offered me a deal at Glentoran.

"However, Coleraine was saved at the 11th hour, so I had to tell Coyler I was staying. Looking back, it was probably crazy, but I just wanted to win something at Coleraine."

When Quinn quit, David Platt was appointed but he was eventually replaced by Oran Kearney. However, there was no new contract on the table for Stephen, who duly did make the move to The Oval, on April 11, 2011, when Scott Young was in the hotseat.

"My motivation was I wanted to be a good player for Glentoran, especially for the fans," he recalls.

"My best memory, apart from the Irish Cup win, was the Boxing Day derby against Linfield. I set up the winner.

"I was called up to do a radio interview in the old stand and I heard the fans, who were making their way to all the little clubs and pubs in east Belfast, singing their hearts out. To send people home that happy was a great feeling.

"But it was a rollercoaster at Glentoran.

"The Irish Cup defeat by Newington was the worst day of my life. The manager (Young) left after that."

With his playing days coming to an end, Stephen put procedures in place to remain in the game when he did eventually hang up the boots.

He continues: "I completed a degree in Sports Science, just when I was about to finish my UEFA A Licence. I made some contacts in America. Philip Mitchell was a big help, he introduced me to US Soccer.

"Unfortunately, I missed out on a coaching post with Everton America. I was gutted. I knew my playing days were limited. For the first time in football, I found out that I'd no gears left in me, in terms of an injection of pace.

"Linfield and Coleraine were interested in signing me. I went back to Coleraine out of my love for the club.

"Then I got a call from Everton America offering me a coaching post - that was in November. I said yes there and then.

"I was due to start at the beginning of January, so I informed Oran (Kearney). Going to America gave me the chance to become a good manager and a good coach and it's been a real success.

"We have two clubs - Everton America, in Connecticut, and Everton FC Westchester, which was an academy club that plays in the top youth league. I went to Westchester after two months of my arrival.

"I got my visa and got my green card within two years. When the boss left for personal reasons, I was offered the role of Academy Director. I try to implement my principles and beliefs and play a brand of football which is good to watch.

"It's a nice life. We live 10 minutes from the beach but are one hour from New York. I like the lifestyle, except January and February, hence that's why we wanted to have the baby in Northern Ireland. We thought it would be nice around family at that time. It's the icing on the cake for Paula and I."

  • Stephen made his first appearance for Coleraine in a 3-0 loss to Glentoran in August 2004 and pulled on the striped shirt for the final time in a 2-2 draw with Cliftonville in January 2014.
  • He scored 65 goals in 300 outings for the Bannsiders.
  • Stephen represented Northern Ireland against Italy in 2006.
  • He won the Irish Cup with Glentoran in 2013.
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