One defeat in the Bluefin Sport Championship since Christmas secured runners-up spot in table. The subsequent defeat of Portadown in the preliminary play-off set up a double-header against Ards for a place in the Danske Bank Premiership.
First Leg at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena – Friday 3 May
In front of over 1,000 spectators, Carrick Rangers looked the more assured side in the opening quarter of the game. It was no surprise, then, when top scorer Michael Smith glanced home an in-swinging Reece Neale corner in the 19th minute.
Two injuries midway through the half disrupted the home team’s formation and rhythm. First, Craig McMullen picked up a knock from an innocuous challenge, and a few minutes later Caolan Loughran left the field with his leg in a support splint, after landing awkwardly on his ankle.
The subsequent reshuffling allowed Ards to come into the game a bit more, and it took two smart saves by Rangers’ Aaron Hogg to keep Carrick ahead at the break.
Ards created most of the goalscoring chances in the second period, though mainly from playing long balls into the box and relying on the resulting scramble in the box. This tactic almost paid dividends with three clear opportunities to equalise, but these simply allowed Hogg to demonstrate why he was chosen as the best goalkeeper in the Bluefin Sport Championship. Two of the saves were top drawer, but the third brought the crowd to their feet: a full-length dive from a header just six yards out.
In the final fifteen minutes, remarkably it was the visitors who faded. Carrick had two half-chances to put daylight between the sides, but both were just off target.
Result: Carrick Rangers 1-0 Ards
Second Leg at the Bangor Fuels Arena – Monday 6 May
Another bumper crowd turned up for this finely balanced tie.
Carrick’s team was missing the three players who were injured during the first leg, forcing manager Niall Currie to start with a 4-4-2 formation rather than his preferred 3-5-2. Nevertheless, it was still an attacking line up, with pace down both flanks.
The pressure was on the home team to get back on level terms, but it was the visitors who took the lead just three minutes after kick-off. Stewart Nixon’s powerful deep corner was headed in by team captain Mark Surgenor.
The goal rocked the hosts, who struggled to come to terms with the pace of Nixon and Ryan Strain up front. Carrick pressed forward in waves. Nixon dragged a shot wide and Michael Smith forced a smart save from the home side’s goalkeeper before Strain nodded home from point blank range in the 29th minute to seemingly put the tie beyond Ards.
The desperation of the situation forced Ards to make an early substitution, former Carrick player Kyle Cherry introduced to bolster the midfield. This change saw the hosts retain the ball much better, and it was no real surprise when they pulled a goal back in the 36th minute. Chris Rodgers conceded a free-kick near his own corner flag, for which he received a caution, and the resultant cross was headed in at the near post.
It got worse for Rodgers just two minutes after the interval, when he was issued with a second yellow card for a foul just outside the penalty area. Carrick were left to play out the remaining 43 minutes a man down.
Ards saw their opportunity to turn the tie around, and created several half-chances. Time after time, though, the resolute Rangers’ backline held firm. Indeed, despite the numerical disadvantage, Carrick had several opportunities to extend their lead, playing as offensively as they could with their depleted personnel.
The final fifteen minutes were frantic. Ards resorted to launching the ball into the penalty area, where yet again the heads and bodies of Surgenor and Daniel Kelly blocked the route to goal.
Exhaustion, mental and physical, started to tell as the pressure of playing three games in six days began to take its toll. The Carrick players were running on empty, but they held out to secure a 2-1 win on the night, 3-1 on aggregate, and a place back in the Premiership at the first time of asking.
Result: Ards 1-2 Carrick Rangers (Agg. 1-3)