It’s been 40 years since Jimmy Brown led Carrick Rangers to an unforgettable win over Linfield in the final of the Irish Cup.
Two well-documented Gary Prenter goals were enough for the ‘B’ Division minnows to shock Roy Coyle’s Blues at the Oval in 1976. It was a remarkable highlight of a remarkable season; a campaign which is still fondly remembered and extolled on the terraces at Taylor’s Avenue.
Beating Linfield was the pinnacle of an incredible first year in management for Brown and it’s an achievement he insisted will never, ever be repeated by a second-tier team.
It remains a landmark day in Carrick’s history and in Brown’s footballing career. It also provided lowly Rangers with a bash at the big-time in Europe. They defeated FC Aris Bonnevoie of Luxembourg 4-3 over two legs in the Cup Winners’ Cup to reach the last 16, where they were defeated by FA Cup holders, Southampton.
“I will remember it as a fantastic piece of Irish football history,” Brown said in an interview with the Times in 2011. “It was an absolute achievement. It was not only the winning of the Irish Cup, which a lot of people will have remembered, because from that we got into the last 16 of the Cup Winners’ Cup which meant we had to get through a round of European football.
“In my opinion, it is something which will never, ever be repeated.
“The three officials who interviewed me - Billy McAuley, John O’Neill and Larry Irons - were dumfounded that a 24-year-old wanted to become player-manager of the club!”
But Brown wasted little time in putting his stamp on the team. He brought in new players and instilled a solid work ethic and a strong team spirit.
“I had to recruit quite a number of players including Eddie Connor, Davy Allen, Tom Cullen, Jim Hamilton, Jackie Phillips, Billy McCracken and Gary Erwin.”
Like Brown, a number of the ‘76 side were ex-Linfield players and the Belfast club’s winning mentality left an indelible mark on them as footballers. And that season it rubbed off on them when they took to the turf at Taylor’s Avenue.
Carrick’s superb league form was mirrored in the Irish Cup. They successfully skipped through three preliminary rounds against Brantwood, RAF and Lisburn Rangers to earn the right to face Ballymena United in the first round proper.
“I knew how Ballymena played; I knew them inside out. We beat them 3-2 at the Showgrounds after being 2-0 down at half-time. It was crazy, it was amazing.
“Then it was Coleraine who were the holders and probably the best team in the Irish League at that time. It took three games. They couldn’t beat us in three games and they were the best team around at the time.”
Rangers eventually saw off the Bannsiders at the neutral venue at Seaview, winning 2-1. “I scored in that game,” smiled Brown. “It was a cracker, if I may say so myself.”
That win booked their spot in the semi-finals and a tasty derby match against Larne awaited. “Carrick were cruising 3-0 at half-time against the Inver Reds but Larne produced a dramatic second-half comeback to force the tie to a replay.
“We managed to beat them 3-2 in the replay at Seaview to get to the final. David McKenzie, our centre-forward, scored a hat-trick in the match,” Brown recollects.
“It was a tremendous feeling to reach the final. It really was unbelievable. There was a big belief. I knew when we beat Coleraine that we could actually go all the way in the competition. I said if Coleraine can’t beat us in three matches then the rest of the Irish League have a problem.”
Having booked their spot in the final Brown was aware the majority of the football fraternity didn’t give his team a prayer against Linfield. A year earlier Carrick had reached the last four of the competition but they were unceremoniously dumped out on the wrong side of a 6-0 thrashing to the Blues.
But Prenter’s double helped Rangers to an amazing 2-1 win over the Windsor Park men in April ‘76. Brown maintains the result taught his good friend and opposing manager, Roy Coyle, never to take anything for granted in the game.
“The final was a bit of a blur. I was caught up in the organisation of the day as well as having to play in it and manage the side,” he said.
“It was a big day for the team. A lot of people weren’t expecting us to win it because Carrick had been beaten by Linfield the year before. In my mind, I knew we were capable of doing it.
“It didn’t really sink in until the early hours of Sunday morning. When we got back to Carrick there was a huge crowd at Taylor’s Avenue on the pitch. It was incredible. It was the stuff of fairytales.”