The month started with a trip to Harland & Wolff Welders in the Bluefin Sport Championship. Rangers took an early lead through Lukasz Adamczyk. An inspired display from the home side’s goalkeeper, plus the woodwork, kept the marauding visitors from piling further misery.
Carrick almost paid the price for not killing off the game when, in a rare attacking move, the Welders capitalised on an Aaron Hogg mistake to equalise midway through the second half. Carrick, though, secured maximum points in a frantic finale as wing-back Reece Neale powered home a half-volley late in the game.
Next up was a home tie against Tennent’s Irish Cup finalists Ballinamallard, the first second-tier side to reach the Cup final since Carrick Rangers in 1976. The County Fermanagh team created better chances in the opening exchanges. They deservedly took the lead three minutes before half-time. Two minutes later, Joshua McIlwaine was given a straight red card for a stamp on Carrick’s Caolan Loughran. The automatic three-match ban means the Mallards’ player will miss the cup final.
Carrick made the most of their numerical advantage, turning the game around in the final quarter of the tie. The visiting keeper failed to complete a Cruyff turn after collecting a back pass, instead gifted the ball to Stewart Nixon. The young striker took full advantage of the mistake to restore parity. With the visiting defence somewhat stunned, Caolan Coyle was in the right place 90 seconds later to blast home a Michael Smith cross, earning three vital points.
Results elsewhere relieved the pressure on Carrick, with second place assured before the short trip to Wilgar Park, home of Dundela. The Duns took the lead midway through the first half, only for Smith to equalise a couple of minutes later. In an end to end second half, it was Carrick who got the better of the home side. Adamczyk collected a flicked header from Coyle to calmly slot the ball home. A third consecutive 2-1 win.
In the final Championship match, Carrick took on Portadown at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena. With the sides due to play each other in the preliminary promotion play-off the following Tuesday, it was no surprise that both clubs fielded largely second-string teams. In the battle of the reserves, the home team systematically took their opponents apart. Loanee, Ryan Strain was the star of the show. His cross was steered home by debutant Aiden McGeown to open the scoring. Before the interval, a wind-assisted-curler bamboozled the Ports’ goalie to double the lead.
Strain continued the second period from where he had left off the first. A long-range effort rebounded off the crossbar. And a few minutes later, his trickery in the box earned a penalty that was dispatched by Craig McMillen. Strain wasn’t finished yet as he collected an Ashton McDermott through ball and curled in a peach of a goal with five minutes left.
The league campaign was now complete: 20 wins and 4 draws from the 32 fixtures. Enough to confirm the second place, and a one-off tie against Portadown for the right to take on Ards in the promotion/relegation play-off.
Play-off for the play-off
Finishing in second place ensured home advantage for the preliminary play-off. There was a bumper crowd at Taylors Avenue on the last day of April. Rangers started the game brightly, creating several goalscoring opportunities and allowing the visitors only little possession. There were no goals, though, by half-time.
Whatever was said in the Portadown dressing room during the interval had the desired effect. Carrick found it difficult to get into their rhythm as the visitors upped their effort. However a lack of quality in the final third meant home keeper Hogg was seldom troubled. Midway through the second period, manager Niall Currie made a substitution, bringing on Adamczyk to bolster the attack. The move paid dividends as his presence at the near post forced a visiting defender to glance home an own goal from a dangerous Neale cross. With the game entering stoppage time, Adamczyk played a clever through ball to Nixon who calmly slotted the ball home.
The promotion/relegation play-off will be over two legs: Ards come to Carrickfergus on Friday 3 May, with the return tie the following Monday.
Irrespective of how those final two games pan out, this has been quite a season for Carrick Rangers. When I think back to August, where results in the opening fixtures did not bode well, the turnaround masterminded by Niall Currie has been remarkable. He, his backroom staff and the players have made the club proud. We can’t ask for more than that.