Carrick Rangers

In the bigger scheme of things, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the disruption to the Northern Ireland Football League seems relatively insignificant.

It’s only a sport, after all, not vital like hospitals, supermarkets and delivery services. However, as someone who was a regular at Carrick Rangers‘ matches, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

I started following Carrick in 1982 and have missed a very small number of games since. Due to varying levels of pandemic countermeasures, I was able to attend a few attendance-restricted games, but in the main matches have been behind closed doors or with away fans barred. So you would think having the ability to see a game remotely would be welcomed. During the pandemic, several Carrick Rangers’ fixtures were streamed online.

The Void

I only watched one game this way because, well, it was a soulless experience.

No digging out appropriate clothing for the weather conditions; making sure the lucky scarf is in my pocket; taking a short drive to the ground to park in my usual spot; meeting up with people I haven’t seen since the last game; watching the players going though their warm up routine, sharing a bit of friendly banter with the stewards; digging deep for a ballot ticket; listening to the team lineups being announced; gathering behind the nets we are attacking; collective singing, cheering, booing, sighing, shrugging, chanting as appropriate during the first 45 minutes; queuing at the toilets at half-time; grabbing a polystyrene cup of tea; sharing analysis of the first half performance with fellow fans, and suggesting changes the manager should make; relocating for the second half (I like to stand behind the goals we are attacking); continuing with the singing, cheering, booing, sighing, shrugging, chanting; celebrating or commiserating at the final whistle; striding (or shuffling, depending on the result) out of the ground back to the car park; listening to Radio Ulster for the other scores and match reports; arriving home to tell the wife how Carrick had done; group WhatsApping with fellow supporters about the game…..

Individually, the activities on that list seem trivial, but collectively they are sorely missed. The connectedness you get from attending a match in the flesh is hard to explain, you need to experience it. It’s something I maybe didn’t appreciate fully at the time.

It’s the people I miss

Like most experiences in life, it’s the people around you at the time that make them memorable. Highs and lows shared with folk you might only see on a matchday creates a bond that is understated – a real community.

We sadly lost a long-time fan, Johnny McAllister, during the summer. COVID regulations at the time significantly limited the number of mourners allowed at his funeral The courtege passed by the club’s ground, and a cluster of Carrick fans gathered to say their farewells as it passed. All of them only came to know Johnny through a shared love of Carrick Rangers.

So, for us, being a supporter of Carrick Rangers is more than “just” attending a match on a Saturday afternoon or midweek evening. Missing the matchday routine has been emotionally difficult and stressful.

Will fans return?

Looking ahead to better times, as the vaccine may give us a way out of the socially-distant nightmare, I worry that the break in routine may lead to some fans not returning to games. For successful clubs it’s maybe an easier task to expect their supporters to return.

There’s nothing like a cup final or league challenge to entice people back through the turnstiles. For the smaller clubs, like Carrick Rangers, it is more difficult. If their fans have, over lockdown, become detached from the familiar routine, then choosing to return to games may not be so straightforward.