This month saw Carrick Rangers complete their five post-split fixtures in the Danske Bank Premiership.
Carrick have been here in each of the previous couple of seasons. They survived two years ago with two goals in added time (the second an overhead kick by Miguel Chines) overturning Ballinamallard United’s 1-0 lead held at ninety minutes. This late drama was intensified as, at the same time, relegation rivals Warrenpoint Town conceded what is arguably the worst penalty decision of the season. The penalty was saved but the ball rebounded off the ‘keeper back into the six-yard box. In the bagatelle that followed, two more shots were blocked on the line before it was eventually bundled into the net to give visitors Dungannon Swifts the win. This remarkable set of results, secured so late in the day, consigned the Point to Championship1, and the Ducks to the relegation/promotion play-off. In the space of ninety seconds, the automatic relegation place was occupied by Carrick, Ballinamallard and ultimately Warrenpoint!
Roll on twelve months, and Carrick finished one place lower than before, and relied on a convincing second leg result to see off Institute in the play-off, to keep a place at the top table.
As the team entered the final month of the regular season, Ballinamallard and Carrick were well adrift at the foot of the table, with Rangers holding a five-point lead. The County Fermanagh side had replaced their manager, with former Carrick player Harry McConkey now at the helm. The new manager ‘bounce’ seemed to be in evidence, as McConkey’s new charges raised their game and became genuine contenders to catch a Carrick side that had lost six of the seven fixtures leading up to April.
Here We Go
The new month started similarly to how March had ended. A poor overall performance at Dungannon Swifts contributed to a 2-0 defeat. Anxiety among the Amber Army increased as Ballinamallard continued with their improved form, defeating Warrenpoint by the same scoreline.
In their only home fixture of the five post-split games, Carrick started well against Ards, a team they had beaten 4-0 in Rangers’ biggest win of the season back in February. Three good chances were spurned, before the visitors scored on the stroke of half-time, a lead they held on to. Meanwhile, the Ducks reduced the points deficit to one, drawing 2-2 with Dungannon.
All set, then, for the relegation showdown as Carrick made the long trek to County Fermanagh for a midweek (potential) winner-take-all tie. A large home crowd and a sizeable travelling support created a terrific atmosphere under the floodlights. The game was fairly even, without any clear-cut opportunities until a sloppy loose pass on the halfway line gifted Shane McGinty a free run towards the Carrick goal before launching a piledriver past Harry Doherty. Worse was to follow when another weak pass put Doherty into trouble as he was forced out of his box to clear the ball. Unfortunately, his attempt to launch the ball downfield was charged down by Sean Noble, who ironically had been part of the Carrick team last season, and the burly striker slotted home from a narrow angle to double the lead. Darren Henderson pulled a goal back, expertly collecting a through ball, and was denied a dramatic late equaliser by a tight offside decision.
Advantage Ballinamallard. Two points clear. Two games left.
Manager David McAlinden fielded an attacking lineup when Carrick travelled to the Oval to take on Glentoran. The hosts scored first on the half hour, from a point-blank header as the Rangers defence failed to deal effectively with a near post corner. The second half was transformational. Lee Chapman scored his third goal against the same opponents this season, before Eamon McAllister drove home from close range after the Glens’ goalie fumbled a cross from substitute Michael Smith to secure three valuable points. With Ballinamallard being held to a 1-1 draw by Ards, the maths for the final round of fixtures were simple. Both teams were on 20 points, but Carrick’s much superior goal difference meant that they had to match at Warrenpoint, the Ballinamallard result at the Oval.
Squeaky Bum Day
The Amber Army travelled in numbers, supplemented by two busloads of youngsters and coaches from the club’s Academy. Over 250 amber-bedecked fans added colour to the backdrop, as Carrick roared into a 3-0 lead. First, Henderson sprung the offside trap before squaring the ball for McAllister to blast home at the far post. Minutes later, Henderson collected a perfect through ball and smashed the ball home. By the half hour, it was three as Michael Smith rammed the ball home after the Point ‘keeper fumbled a Ralph Kottoy cross. The shine was taken off that goal within seconds as a weak back-header left Paddy McNally in a difficult position. Running back towards his own net, and under pressure, his intended clearance ricocheted off a home striker and past Doherty to reduce the lead. This minor setback rattled the visitors somewhat, who were relatively fortunate to hold onto that lead at half-time.
With Ballinamallard leading at the Oval, and comfortably so, Carrick knew a win was needed. Nerves were jangling when Danny Wallace drove home to reduce the lead to a single goal. Both sides created chances to score again, but Carrick held on to consign Ballinamallard to Championship 1.
With two games against Newry City in the playoffs still to go, Premiership football for next season is far from assured, but considering the club’s precarious position after the defeat in County Fermanagh just a fortnight earlier, it does feel like the Great Escape may be on. Whether it’s the Charles Bronson outcome, or the Steve McQueen one, only time will tell.