FORMER fans’ favourite Stephen Carson discusses his career at Rangers, signing on the dotted line for Coleraine and why he didn’t really want the move to Glentoran in 2011…
The Ballymoney man would make the move to full-time football at the age of 16 to sign for Rangers, where he made four first-team appearances before signing for Dundee United, Barnsley and Hartlepool.
Stephen would return back home in the summer of 2004 and looked poised to sign for Portadown, however that move failed to materialise and Marty Quinn swooped to land the winger.
Regarded as one of the best players in the Irish League during his first stint with the club, Carson would remain loyal and stayed until the end of the 2011 season after agreeing a switch to Glentoran. At The Oval, the wide man would finally lift silverware that his career deserved as he helped the East Belfast side win the Irish Cup.
The 39-year-old would end his career at The Showgrounds after putting pen-to-paper on a deal in 2013 but that stay was only for six months as Carson moved to the USA to start a coaching role.
In total, Carson made 300 appearances for the club and scored 65 goals during a memorable seven-and-a-half years on the Ballycastle Road.
In May 2009, Carson would earn a call-up to the Northern Ireland squad and won his first cap against Italy and he spoke to colerainefc.com’s Jonathan McNabb from Connecticut about his career highlights and disappointments.
Q1. Stephen talk us through your young days playing football…did you think you’d make it as a full-time professional footballer? What position did you play?
My uncle Stanley started a little team in Ballymoney and I played for them at nine or ten years old, even though I was competing against boys two or three years older. We were beaten in two cup finals and came second in the league which was tough to take back then.
Killowen wanted to sign me and I played for them at under-13 level with the likes of Eddie McCallion and Gary Hunter. It was a very successful team as we won a host of trophies but I remember at that time there was a lot of talented footballers in the North Coast.
St Andrews Boys Club in Belfast spotted me at under-14 level and I was playing with and against the likes of Gary Hamilton, Paul McAreavey, Stuart King and Warren Feeney. It was extremely competitive but I enjoyed my youth career.
I knew I was a good player but I never thought I’d become a professional footballer. I remember scoring four goals against Dungoyne and was told after the match that I’d be going over for a trial with Rangers and that’s when I thought I had a chance. I went over to Scotland and felt I done well and Archie Knox wanted me to sign. Even after I signed for Rangers, I still wanted to win for St Andrews and play well.
I was always a winger but I felt more confident on the left-hand side even though I was right-footed. I just felt my balance allowed me to beat a man and get crosses into the box.
Q2. Describe the moment you signed for Rangers? You played with some fantastic players didn’t you?
When I signed for Rangers they had players like Paul Gascoigne, Ian Durrant, Brian Laudrup and Michael Mols, but it was exciting to be at such a big club. To be honest, I didn’t support them as a child, my favourite teams were Coleraine and Manchester United.
I went over to Scotland nine days after completing my GCSE exams at 16-years-old and it was just a different level of training and playing. All you were trying to do was to work hard to stay there and getting to the level to play with these fantastic players.
I came back home with Rangers during my first month to play against Crusaders and Ballyclare Comrades but was then straight into the Reserves with the likes of Barry Ferguson. It was invaluable to be around winners and strong characters at that time and it was a sink or swim mentality.
I felt crossing was the best part of my game and I remember John Robertson working with me, Arthur Numan and Neil McCann to cross the ball with my left foot and I worked hard at that. Furthermore, Andrei Kanchelskis was great with me and he was an intelligent player.
Q3. You had spells with other clubs across Scotland and England…would you recommend players here making the move over the water?
Everyone is unique and wants certain things but being a professional footballer was a simple yes for me. It’s important to get a manager who believes and trusts in you.
Dundee United wanted to sign me three times before I went to Tannadice, but to be honest, I wanted to stay at Rangers as I felt I would have improved as I got older. My biggest regret at that time was not going out on loan.
The Irish League is a tough league and whilst it’s not the greatest to watch, it is physical and you have no time on the ball, which is why I found playing in League One easier.
The Irish League is a good grounding for local players here and you have to look at Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas and Gavin Whyte for inspiration. They all made moves over the water, got used to the full-time set-up and are now playing at a high level for club and country.
If offered the opportunity you have to take it with both hands to say you played at the highest level possible. However, it is important to also be realistic and you have to give it your all plus more to make it. For example, Chris Brunt and Steven Davis are great players but I know how hard they worked to achieve what they have. They are great role models.
Q4. You returned home to sign for Coleraine – why? Wasn’t there other more successful clubs at that time interested in your services?
I agreed to sign for Linfield six months prior to coming home but I decided to stay in England until the end of the season. That summer no clubs called and I had an agent who told me that Portadown could come close to matching my wages that I was on.
I played in a friendly for Portadown against Glenavon and scored two and provided two assists. They had such a fantastic side with the likes of Gary Hamilton, Vinny Arkins and Mickey Collins and I thought the move was going to materialise but it didn’t. In my head I knew moving there would only be a short-term fix as driving to and from training in the winter wouldn’t have been easy.
Coleraine came in for me and I supported the club as a boy and I remember meeting the likes of Harry Gregg as a kid and it just felt like the right place to rebuild my career. I liked speaking to Marty Quinn and the deal was quickly done. I loved going to training, playing for Coleraine and Marty just wanted to win. He was a great motivator and told me to play my natural game which I enjoyed.
We had the basis of a good side at that time with the likes of Davy O’Hare, Paul Gaston, Barry Johnston, Pat McAllister, Stephen Beatty and Jody Tolan. To be honest, I felt we were a centre-back short for challenging for the title but Glentoran, Linfield and Portadown were always strong.
Q5. You were a part of the club during the difficulties in 2005…how hard was that?
To be honest, when I signed in 2004 I didn’t realise that the club was in dire situation financially.
I remember at that time there was a real togetherness between the players to get through the situation. Pat McAllister leaving was a blow as he was a hero, a great player and an even better leader.
Stephen Beatty and Davy O’Hare agreed to stay and I just felt I had to be professional, Coleraine were good to me and I didn’t want to leave and jump ship when things went bad.
Black Tuesday was a terrible night as we thought that was it, but it was also a good night as it showed everyone how loved Coleraine was by the supporters.
After we were saved, I was happy to get back playing but we were decimated as a team. I was more wary about not having enough good players to compete and I don’t think we did for two years. I suppose at that time it was more about survival than challenging for honours.
Q6. How difficult were the Cup final defeats with Coleraine? The only regret in your career not winning silverware with the club?
I think at times you have to accept that your career can go in different ways and it was a disappointment to not lift silverware with Coleraine.
I remember the 2008 Irish Cup final against Linfield and I had a good first half and we should have been 2-0 up at the break. After the break, they cut the supply off to me, took the game away from us and it was a disappointing game to lose. Linfield had a serial winners with the likes of Glenn Ferguson, Winkie Murphy and Alan Mannus, so we really needed that second goal.
The League Cup final against Glentoran in 2010 I got injured the Tuesday night before and I started the match but I just wasn’t myself. I remember Ciaran Martyn hit my ankle in the first-half and I wanted to come off. I was out for a while after that and I couldn’t run properly. We had a bad start to the following season which didn’t help.
My biggest disappointment was not winning a trophy with the 09/10 team as we tore teams apart for three or four months and we deserved to win something. Rory Patterson was great to play with, Darren Boyce was on fire and we had Eunan O’Kane for half a season. At 29-years-old and in my peak years I felt that was the season to justify my loyalty to Coleraine by winning something but it wasn’t to be.
Q7. You joined Glentoran in the summer of 2011 – what prompted the move? How would you describe your time at The Oval?
I went back to University at 27-years-old and was employed full-time by Coleraine as a player and doing community work. Once my contract was running out, I don’t think Coleraine could have afforded to keep me on full-time, but I still wanted to stay, though no contract was offered to me.
I quit my job for my University course and I was probably solely dependent on my football wage for the first-time in my career at that time. Coleraine told me they weren’t in a position to offer me a new deal and I was frustrated, but Linfield and Glentoran expressed an interest.
I signed for the Glens rather quickly and I didn’t feel if I was really wanted at Coleraine, with Glentoran offering me a three-year deal when I was coming 31-years-old.
I felt Coleraine were going through a rebuilding job and Glentoran told me that all their debts were taken care of and I played with Scott Young’s brother at Rangers. The move at the time was a strange feeling and something I didn’t think would ever happen.
However, looking back it was probably the move I needed as I wasn’t the Stephen Carson at 27 or 28-years-old, so I didn’t want to fail. More often that not you’ll hear ‘he was good for Coleraine but can’t produce it for Linfield or Glentoran’, so there was a fire in my belly to do well.
I think I done well at Glentoran, I must have set-up 30-plus goals in my first season and won the Irish Cup a year later. I was proud of my time there as I had a tough time with ankle problems and I was trying to stay fit. Winning the Irish Cup was great for the players, staff and fans. Glentoran is a great club and I had an affinity for them after they applauded Coleraine off the pitch when we beat them 6-0. It is great to see them doing well now.
Q8. You returned to the club for a short spell after that…was it great to finish your career with your boyhood club?
I tried to get a move to the United States sorted before the season started as I had my heart set on retiring and moving over. I always wanted to be a manager and I knew going there would be a perfect chance.
The move to America failed so I decided going back to Coleraine was my best option even though I was pondering retirement. We were struggling in terms of results but I felt we were playing some decent football.
I got a call in November saying that the move to the States would happen and I told the club privately that I was going to retire. In my head, I was relieved as I wanted the fans to remember the old Stephen Carson. My heart was in it, but my body simply wasn’t.
I think they signed Davy McDaid in the same transfer window and I knew him and Eoin Bradley would be a brilliant partnership.
Q9. Who was the best player you played with and against in your career, as well as in the Irish League?
Paul Gascoigne at Rangers was the most talented player that I trained with. He was phenomenal. The best professional I played against was Ľubomír Moravčík at Celtic. He was a good player and I only thought I had two good feet.
In the Irish League I have four players who I enjoyed playing with the most. The first is Rory Patterson as he had good pace, loved getting in behind defences and scoring goals. The second is Jody Tolan as in his first season playing with him he was one of the best strikers in the league. Leon Knight also gets a mention as he was probably the most talented and I had a great chemistry with Gary Hamilton for a time at Glentoran.
The best player in the Irish League during my time was Glenn Ferguson as he was a goal machine and helped bring a lot of success to Linfield.
Q10. Do you continue to monitor Irish League results in the States? Is it possible that Stephen Carson could one day be a manager back home?
I do keep an eye on results and see how things are going from afar. I was at the Linfield game in December and Coleraine should have won it. It is great to see the club up there challenging.
At the minute, I have no plans to come home as I love doing what I’m doing over here. I am the Academy Director of one of the teams in the highest league in the country. My teams have been successful and reached the play-offs in two of the last three seasons. I like them to play football the right way and it has been a great learning curve for me.
I am happy here working with some fantastic kids, but if I do return home and the bug is there, then I might manage in the Irish League one day.
Q11. Talk us through the international cap won against Italy…must have been a proud moment?
It was great and I thought I’d get five minutes of action, but to start ahead of Niall McGinn and Shane Ferguson, I was shocked to say the least. I thought I done reasonably well and didn’t let myself down.
Italy were kind to us with the 3-0 scoreline but it was nice to represent my country and it was great to earn my first cap whilst still a Coleraine player and nobody can take that away from me.
It was a wee reward perhaps for not winning trophies or a league with Coleraine and I’m thankful to Nigel Worthington for the experience.