August was full of hope, but the following month brought the Amber Army back to earth with a bump. Actually, more like a crash landing.
The opening game of September was a six-pointer against winless Ards at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena. From the very outset, the visitors skilfully drew their opponents into a series of individual, physical battles. Naively, too many of the Carrick players fell for it: the game turned ugly, with football (and Carrick Rangers) the eventual losers. The yellow cards gathered quicker than my birthday ones the following day before Ards’ Kyle Cherry was shown a straight red for a two-footed challenge, and Rangers’ captain Mark Surgenor followed him into the changing rooms minutes later for a second booking. Late in the game, Scott Davidson scored the only goal of the match to take maximum points.
The following Friday evening, Rangers travelled to Lurgan to take on high-flying Glenavon. Despite the gulf in strength between the two sides, Carrick manfully took the challenge head on, defending resolutely and counter-attacking when able. The tactics appeared to be heading towards securing a valuable point, with Carrick ‘keeper Harry Doherty in fine form, when the home side were awarded a penalty: Jordan Jenkins’ expertly crafted fall earning the spot kick, duly converted by Sammy Clingan in the 65th minute. The game was put beyond doubt when Andrew Mitchell curled in a late pearler from twenty yards.
The trip to League leaders Coleraine was much more one sided, with the Bannsiders dominant from first minute to last. The 3-0 scoreline flattered Carrick, if truth be told. Only Harry Doherty, again proving to be an astute acquisition, and some wasteful finishing prevented the proverbial cricket score.
The goalscoring form returned in the home County Antrim Shield clash with PSNI, a repeat of the tie at the same stage of last season’s competition that the visitors had won 4-1. There was no repeat of that capitulation as goals from Ben Roy (2), Sean Green and Eamon McAllister put Rangers in control, before a quickfire double from the visitors had nerves unnecessarily jangling. The win secured an away trip to the Oval to take on Glentoran in the next round.
Back in the League, Cliftonville came to Carrickfergus without an away win since their last trip to the same venue. An early goal by McAllister settled the nerves as Rangers played some good football, and deservedly held onto the lead up to the break. A half-time substitution for the visitors turned the game on its head, striker Joe Gormley entering the fray. The prolific scorer equalised midway through the second period, and netted a late penalty for the winner.
The final game of the month was as mad as a bag of cats. Rangers took an early lead at Warrenpoint through the still-improving Andrew Mooney, who also hit the woodwork from two yards out minutes later as Carrick continually tore through the hosts’ defensive line. However, the ‘Point drew level just before the interval to undo the good work. The second forty-five minutes were frantic: Sean Mackle netted in the opening minute, Doherty saved three one-on-one chances created as well as making several key saves. Out of a hopeful punt into the penalty area, Michael Smith headed home from a Chris Morrow knock-on to equalise against the run of play. In a hectic final ten minutes, four Carrick players failed to get a key touch on the ball as it ricocheted around the Warrenpoint six-yard box and a minute before the final whistle Mooney struck the crossbar from thirty yards. A hard earned point from a game Carrick should have put beyond doubt in the first thirty minutes, yet could have been three or four goals behind in by the 75th minute. Breathless.
Last month I somewhat prematurely suggested that Carrick may defy the doom-and-gloom merchants who had predicted the County Antrim side were favourites for relegation. One point from five League games has dragged Carrick Rangers into the relegation mix, though. The crisp, passing, energetic football of August is a bit of a distant memory as an element of anxiety appears to have engulfed the squad. Some soul-searching is required.