A month removed from the end of the Carolina RailHawks 2011 season, and with it the departure of manager Martin Rennie to become head coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer, the search for RailHawks’ new gaffer has reached its final stages.

When Vancouver announced Rennie’s hire in August, RailHawks’ management indicated at the time they hoped to tab his replacement by early November. That informal deadline has passed as speculation continues to churn.

Speaking to Triangle Offense, RailHawks’ president Curt Johnson says the club now anticipates making an official announcement within the next couple of weeks, most likely following the Thanksgiving holiday. Johnson says the interest level and sizable pool of eager applicants for the post was been robust, and the overall evaluation process and other contingencies have acted to delay finalizing any selection.

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According to sources with knowledge of the situation, however, Puerto Rico Islanders’ head coach Colin Clarke is a leading candidate and possible front-runner for the job. Clarke, a former Northern Ireland international and First Division English footballer, managed FC Dallas of MLS from 2003-6 and has helmed the Islanders since 2007. Clarke also managed the Puerto Rico national team from 2008-11.

Clarke’s contract with the Islanders expired after the 2011 season, and according to various sources, he not reached terms to continue managing the Caribbean club. Clarke and Johnson share a relationship dating back to 1998 when Johnson, then general manager of the USL’s Richmond Kickers, hired Clarke to his first head coaching job.

Online reports have linked Clarke with interest in the vacant Northern Ireland manager’s position following the departure of Nigel Worthington. The RailHawks’ delay could well be tied to Clarke’s exploration of that plum position. The bookies’ favorites, however, continue to include Jim Magilton (late of Ipswich Town and Queens Park Rangers) and Martin O’Neill (Aston Villa, Celtic).

In other news, Johnson confirms to Triangle Offense that the RailHawks are in discussions with the Vancouver Whitecaps to stage a friendly between the teams next March at WakeMed Soccer Park. According to Johnson, there is strong interest in the match on the part of management for both clubs, including, naturally, former RailHawks’ and current Whitecaps’ manager Martin Rennie. However, no formal deal has yet been finalized.