Carrick Rangers started and ended the month with 3-0 victories over relegation rivals Institute in the Danske Bank Premiership.
The few weeks between those vital wins, though, were the most difficult in the club’s 80-year history.
Off to a flier
The first half of the home game against Institute was lethargic, though Carrick took a 1-0 lead into the break through a Daniel Kelly header. The second period, however, proved much more entertaining as young wing-back Jerry Thompson put in a man-of-the match performance to drive his team towards a 3-0 win. Michael Surgenor scored a late penalty and Michael Smith tapped home a third on the final whistle.
How did Carrick not win this one?
The following Tuesday evening, Carrick Rangers travelled to Lurgan to take on Glenavon. Thompson was initially listed on the teamsheet, but after he failed to arrive at the ground the starting line-up was changed at the last minute. In a surprisingly one-sided game, Carrick created more scoring opportunities than they had in the 6-2 win over the same opponents a few weeks earlier. However, a combination of wasteful finishing and inspired goalkeeping meant Rangers failed to score. A solitary strike in a goalmouth scramble gave the hosts an undeserved three points.
A tragedy unfolds
Within minutes of the final whistle, the reason for the late team change became horrifyingly clear. A Facebook post by Jerry’s sister reported that the young man had taken his own life. The latest young man to complete suicide in the capital city.
Just a week after I had cheered Jerry on as he helped Carrick beat Institute, I was again watching him. Only this time, it was to see the 24-year old’s coffin carried into the Sacred Heart Church in Belfast.
Looking in from the outside, Jerry seemed to have so much going for him. As well as his footballing prowess, he had a supportive and loving family. He had become a father eight months earlier. He had a wide circle of friends, a few of whom were regulars at Carrick matches telling anyone in earshot how proud they were to be cheering Jerry on from the stands.
Those same friends joined a hundred more in Sacred Heart Church, along with Jerry’s family and dozens from the wider football circle to say their final farewells. Jerry’s Carrick Rangers’ teammates formed a guard of honour as he was taken from the Church, and they then carried his coffin along the Oldpark Road to the waiting hearse.
I don’t know what demons Jerry was battling, but it’s tragic to think that he lost his fight with them.
The funeral was on the same day that Carrick were due to take on Cliftonville. The match was obviously postponed as a mark of respect. There was a minute’s silence at all Premiership matches that went ahead.
An emotional day
Rangers returned to action on an emotional Saturday when Glentoran were the opponents. Members of Jerry’s family were in attendance as both sets of players wore shirts with his name on them in the pre-match preparations, and his number 21 shirt was formally retired. There was hardly a dry eye among the Carrick players, backroom staff, and supporters during the eerie minute’s silence. Just as emotional was the round of applause during the 21st minute. The sight of young striker Stewart Nixon joining in with the applause for the whole minute, while still playing, is something that will stay with me for some time.
In a match where the result was immaterial to the Carrick supporters, Glentoran won 1-0.
Consecutive clean sheets, but…..
Boxing Day saw the local derby with Larne. In a very even clash with few clear-cut scoring opportunities, the scoreless draw was no real surprise. It was a very valuable point, though.
The month, year and decade ended with the long trip up the Glenshane Pass to take on Institute at the Brandywell. Carrick had laboured somewhat against the same team earlier in the month, with the scoreline a little flattering. The same could not be said about this comprehensive performance which created the same 3-0 result. The goals came from Lloyd Anderson, Reece Neale, and Nixon, but it would have been no surprise had Carrick scored double that tally. There was, however, bad news after the game. Goalkeeper Aaron Hogg picked up an injury in the first half and had to be replaced by 17-year-old debutant Ben Nicholl. It seems like the damage is significant and Hogg is likely to miss the remainder of the season.
The decade ends with Carrick in good shape
Rangers enter 2020 on 25 points, 12 ahead of Institute who occupy the relegation play-off position. A vastly superior goal difference makes it an effective 13 point buffer, although no chickens are being counted just yet.
As I complete this review, I have to say it is tinged with an element of guilt. The tragic events in the middle of the month show how insignificant football is in the bigger scheme of things. However, everyone who knew Jerry tells of how much he loved the game, and I would therefore like to dedicate this month’s summary to him.
Rest in Peace, young man.