WHEN signing up at the Showgrounds in the Summer of 1992, Antrim man Mark Carlisle wouldn’t have envisaged that almost 30 years later he’d still be involved with a team representing Ballymena United.
Now on the coaching staff with Ballymena United Ladies, Mark has reflected on a lifetime involvement with football.
As a boy Mark took to football instantly and was playing for the school team at Antrim Primary School while still in Primary Four.
“I always blame football for my education because I always played up a year for whichever school I was at. I played for the P7 team when I was in P4 and then when I went to Antrim High School it was the same. Unlike now where schools play fixtures after school, back then the games were all played during school hours so I was always out of class!” said Mark.
A midfielder in his early days, young Carlisle also made the Mid Antrim District team while at secondary school thanks to some encouragement from his football coach at Antrim High.
“A guy called Geoff Moore was our football coach at school and he was great for me, always giving me advice and encouragement. He was actually a Geography teacher but he took the football team. We had some team that year in the district competition, I think we might have been the only Mid Antrim team to ever win it. Jason Gilmore, who became a team mate at Ballymena, Lindsay Curry was another, Tom Young from Ahoghill who went to Rangers as an apprentice and Michael O’Neill, who was at St. Louis’ at that time, were all in that team.”
Outside of school Mark played at youth level for local team Parkhall Rovers and played in the Milk Cup in 1986 for Antrim Town.
At the same time he was making his first steps towards senior football when he joined up with Chimney Corner, playing for their second string side in the Ballymena Saturday Morning League while still at school.
“It was some baptism for me playing Saturday Morning League football, I was just a boy of 14 playing against the likes of Carniny Rangers and Castletown United. When I look at kids that age coming through the youth academy and think what I was experiencing then…but the thing was I grew up quickly there and learned how to look after myself.”
Mark soon graduated to the senior team at Chimney Corner and by now had moved into the back four playing predominantly as a right back but was also more than capable of featuring at sweeper. Corner boss Alex McKee was happy to put his faith in the youngster blending him into a team which had won the B Division just a season before and featured the likes of Joe McCall, Harry Kernohan and Lex Elliott.
“Alex was the first man to put me into the first team at Chimney Corner, he was always building you up and was full of encouragement. He left to take up the job as reserve team manager at Ballymena and he tried to get me to go there but I couldn’t drive at the time so I stayed where I was.”
Mark established himself as a regular with Corner and after a Cup game against Ballymena United Reserves in 1991, the chance came to move to full time football in England with Port Vale who were then in the old Division Two.
“I knew a number of Irish League clubs were interested in me at the time but to be honest I was happy where I was, playing in a good Chimney Corner team and didn’t entertain any ideas about moving. Then Davy Millar, our manager, told me Port Vale wanted to take me on trial after they had seen me against Ballymena Reserves. So I went there for three weeks or so and was playing in the reserve team and doing well. John Rudge, the first team manager, was coming to watch our game at Oldham as he had been getting good feedback on me from the reserve team boss Mike Pejic. Unfortunately for me I did my medial ligament just on the stroke of half time. After the game the manager said they would like another look at a later stage but after being relegated the second trip never came off.”
Just a few months later in the summer of 1992, Carlisle made the move to senior football with Ballymena United under manager Jim Hagan and settled straight into the right back position.
“It scared the life out of me to begin with and I don’t think I played particularly well for the first few games. It was quite a change for me because we had maybe two men and a dog watching some B Division games so it was quite a change coming out of a tunnel and people were there and were singing. But I remember playing a game at Seaview in late August and I felt as though I’d done okay and was grand from then on.”
Coming into such an experienced side held no fears for 22-year-old Carlisle though and he finished his opening season in the team at the Showgrounds with a Players’ Player of the Year award and as an ever present in the side.
“It was a really good side to come into to and there was a great togetherness. There was Goosey Young, big John Heron, Dessie (Loughery), Jonny Speak …they were all really down to earth guys. On training nights you’d have gone into the Social Club together for an hour and played pool or whatever and you just felt instantly part of it.”
Jim Hagan’s brand of football was pleasing to the eye but ultimately was unsuccessful and Tommy Jackson was brought in to replace him.
At a time when the Irish League was introducing promotion and relegation and results were at a premium, Ballymena failed to reach the promised land of the Premier Division and were condemned to second tier football in 1995 after Gary Erwin, Jackson’s successor, was quickly replaced by Alan Fraser. After missing barely a handful of games in his first three seasons Mark found himself out of the first team after a summer signing splurge by the new boss.
“I ended up playing reserve team football but picked up a Steel and Sons Cup winners medal that year. We had a few kids in that team and some lads with experience, a great bunch of boys. Then I got back into the first team and although we missed out on promotion we won the First Division in 1997. The signings in that second season Fraz was there were the key to the title win. Kneller (Philip Knell) signed and Ian Bustard came in and he was a massive signing for us and these helped set us up for a great run back in the top flight as well.”
United’s form tailed off after Christmas and two mid table finishes saw Alan Fraser moved on. Carlisle had fond memories of that period and as a very infrequent goal scorer, one game in particular stood out…
“We were playing Linfield at home, February 1999, it was some first half. We were three up at half time and I got the third goal, we went on to win four-two. I was playing right back and had drifted infield and a ball into the box was headed back out by Winkie Murphy. I just watched it dropping right for me to hit on the volley and I went for it. It felt like a perfect connection but I couldn’t help thinking it was heading for Fisherwick! But as I watched it dip I knew their keeper was struggling and in it went. If anyone remembers it, I definitely meant it!”
New boss Nigel Best’s tenure was short lived and a new manager arrived at the Showgrounds who helped to shape Carlisle’s future path in the game.
“Kenny Shiels came in and he was like a breath of fresh air, totally changed the way I looked at the game. He encouraged me to get forward and use the ball differently. He gave me a whole new lease of life and his training was fantastic. We got relegated and he brought a lot of kids in and he made me captain. Then Shea (Campbell) and Paul Byrne came in to provide some experience. I really enjoyed playing for Kenny and looking back I’d say it was his and Jim Hagan’s influence led me to coaching. They encouraged players to express themselves and enjoy playing football.”
After two and a half seasons with Kenny, Mark’s playing career at the Showgrounds came to an end with a richly deserved testimonial game against Hearts in the summer of 2003 and he made the move to play for Armagh City having played 436 times for the Sky Blues. Carlisle became part of the first ever Armagh side to reach the Premier Division in 2005 before wrapping up his playing career a year later at the age of thirty six.
While still playing regularly, Mark was approached to get involved with the Ballymena United Youth Academy.
“I was approached by Stewarty Neill about getting involved in coaching the kids. It started off one night a week then gradually I got more and more involved. Myself and Melvyn Logan took a team from under 11 right through to the youth team stage. Leroy Millar was one player who came through when we were there and others like Eoin Kane, Michael Smith and Jason Johnston made it to the first team before moving elsewhere. Around the same time Chris Mark got me involved coaching the ladies team. To begin with I helped with a few sessions then Chrissy got me started going to games before he left and Trevor Boyce and myself took over. I was doing this while still involved with the Youth Academy so it was all quite time consuming.”
After ending his association with the Youth Academy, Mark accepted an offer from old team mate Davy McAlinden to join the coaching staff at Larne.
“I spent a few seasons there with Davy, we had some great lads, characters like Stuart King and Mark Picking who were probably our best players at that time but they’d have been there at the end on training nights helping to tidy up. I loved my time there.”
Mark continued his involvement with the ladies’ set up and after a work-enforced break for a year he helped rebuild the junior section alongside Trevor Boyce and Nikki Stevenson to ensure a progression of talent into the Ballymena United Ladies first team.
“We sat down and discussed how we could do this and we now have around 100 players across all age groups including the first team squad. Currently I’m coaching the under fifteens which takes place two nights a week. I’m based in Dublin with work during the week so I’d drive up on a Tuesday night and back down after training. I’m home on a Thursday evening so it all works out to be there both nights. People might say ‘are you mad doing that?’ but you look at how they’re improving and although some of them won’t make the first team they’ll at least get better as footballers so doing those miles doesn’t come into it. There are some smashing wee players and when you see the progression it’s brilliant. It’s why you coach.”
Mark’s son Daniel has followed in his father’s footsteps into the world of football coaching after completing his education at John Moores University in Liverpool.
The 24-year-old has his own coaching business and is one of the Youth Academy staff at Ballymena United while also heading up the underage section at the Ladies team.
“He’s effectively my boss now,” laughed Mark.
Although Covid may have curtailed football activities in the last twelve months it hasn’t dimmed Mark Carlisle’s enthusiasm for passing on the knowledge gained from his years at the top level of the game here.