The Bluefin Sports Championship points continued to accumulate for Carrick Rangers during February, but the Tennent’s Irish Cup run came to an end.
The opening fixture of the shortest month of the year, played at the Belfast Loughshore Arena was a goal-fest. Harland & Wolff Welders had taken maximum points from the two pre-split fixtures, but Carrick Rangers dominated this encounter from the kick-off. They raced into a 4-0 lead in the opening 18 minutes with goals from Stewart Nixon, Daniel Kelly, top scorer Michael Smith and Chris Rodgers. Only the plucky visiting goalkeeper kept Rangers at bay for the remainder of the half.
After the break, Carrick continued to pile forward, and the only surprise was that it took until the 70th minute for the hosts to extend their lead. Ryan Strain scored his first goal for the club, and quick-fire strikes in the next four minutes from Kelly and Nixon, brought the goal tally up to seven. With the game over as a contest, Carrick relaxed a little too much, allowing the Welders to net two late consolation goals.
Two long trips
The re-arranged Irish Cup tie at Ballinamallard (postponed from the previous month due to weather conditions) was played on a Monday evening. In a lacklustre encounter of few real chances, the hosts edged home 1-0 to progress into the next round. Carrick barely mustered an effort on goal, the closest being a Smith header that cannoned off the crossbar. Although it mattered not in the end, a late save by Rangers’ ‘keeper Aaron Hogg is worthy of mention. Seemingly beaten as a ‘Mallards striker rounded him, the goalie, who has just signed an extension to his contract, pulled off possibly the save of the season.
Carrick made the same long trek to County Fermanagh on the subsequent weekend, and fell behind just before the interval. The signs were not good, as Rangers had failed to overturn a deficit in any match this season. Manager Niall Currie tinkered with the formation in the second half, and this paid dividends when centre-back Caolan Loughran equalised in the 53rd minute, stoking the ball home from just outside the penalty area. Five minutes later, Ballinamallard conceded a penalty, which Loughran blasted home.
With the referee just about to blow for full-time, the home side should have equalised. Hogg pulled off a save at close range that rivalled the one he made in the same goalmouth a few days earlier, but the ball rebounded to a Ballinamallard striker in front of a gaping goal. The home support was already celebrating, only to see the effort hooked off the line by a fully outstretched Lewis Houston.
Like London buses
The month’s fixtures closed with the visit of Dundela to Carrickfergus, a team Carrick had failed to score against on the previous two clashes. In a scrappy opening hour, Carrick struggled to get near their opponent’s goal, as the East Belfast side defended resolutely. The visitors also played incisively on the counter-attack, creating several good scoring opportunities before taking the lead in the 34th minute. Hogg pulled off a string of fine saves to keep Carrick in the game, but all seemed lost when an unfortunate slip by Houston allowed a Duns’ striker to have a clear run from the half-way line and beat the defenceless goalie in the 58th minute.
This prompted Currie into making a couple of substitutions, allowing the team to change from a 3-5-2 formation to an attacking 4-4-2. From looking bereft of an attacking threat, Carrick immediately became more potent. Loughran pulled a goal back in the 64th minute, with a 30-yard strike that swerved so much through the air that the visiting ‘keeper was left red-faced, diving completely the wrong way. Ten minutes later, the scorer became provider, as his headed clearance played Smith through a static defence, allowing him to equalise with a trademark strike.
Goals change matches, and from being apparently down and out, Rangers were now threatening every time they were in possession. It was no surprise, then, when they took the lead in the 79th minute. Nixon chased a through ball, his pace allowing him to get goal side of a defender who brought the young striker down in the penalty area. Loughran stepped up to hammer home what turned out to be the final, and winning goal of the game.
Some disappointment to exit from the Irish Cup, but a maximum haul of league points more than compensated. With games running out, it appears like the play-off (for the play-offs) is edging towards being between Carrick and Portadown. No eggs being counted just yet, though.