It may be the shortest month of the year, but Carrick Rangers still squeezed in six games, as postponed matches from earlier in the winter were re-scheduled.
First up was the midweek visit of Crusaders to the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena. Despite a hard working performance from the home side, the League leaders had too much firepower under the floodlights, winning 3-0, though Carrick were denied a consolation goal that their play deserved when an absolute stonewall penalty was denied by the referee.
The influence of the officials was to be a feature throughout the month.
The short trip to the Bangor Fuels Arena to take on Ards the following Saturday produced a performance, and result, that had eluded Rangers for seventeen games. In a completely one-sided match, loanee Jonathan Smith spun on a sixpence after controlling the ball in the penalty area to rifle home the opening goal. Further goals from centre-back Paddy McNally, a volley that any striker would have been proud of, and a smart finish after a jinking run into the box by Lee Chapman had the visiting fans in rapture. A late Eamon Scannell header from a pinpoint Chapman cross was the icing on the cake and secured Carrick’s biggest league win since a similar scoreline against the same opponents last season.
Smith was unable to feature in the next fixture against his parent club Glentoran at Taylors Avenue. The match turned against Rangers in the space of eight seconds early in the first half. A Darren Henderson effort cannoned off the crossbar, but Scannell met the rebound on the volley. His effort rocketed down off the same part of the goal frame, and clearly crossed the goalmouth. Unfortunately, the Assistant Referee failed to spot this, and with Carrick appealing for justice, the Glens broke down the other end of the field to snatch an opening goal. Carrick pulled level when Henderson netted from close range. The game ebbed and flowed, with a draw looking very likely until the final minute. Damien NcNulty, who had been outstanding in the heart of defence, had to go off as he injured himself in conceding a free kick, and immediately upon the restart, Glentoran scored to take the spoils.
In a true six-pointer encounter, Warrenpoint came to town with a four point lead over their hosts. In a poor game played in difficult conditions, the Point established a 2-0 lead through a very rare individual error by ‘keeper Harry Doherty, and a defensive lapse that enabled the visitors to score from close range. Paddy McNally scored his second goal in the month to pull Rangers back into the tie, but a resolute defensive display ultimately left the County Down side seven points ahead by the final whistle.
Third placed Glenavon came to town trying to keep daylight between themselves and Linfield. In a fairly even game, Carrick took the lead when a simple ball over the top caught out the Lurgan Blues’ defence, allowing Henderson to lob the ‘keeper. The lead lasted just four minutes, though, as the Rangers defence failed to deal with a corner, leaving a Glenavon player the simple task of nodding in unmarked from six yards. The game swung in Carrick’s favour when the visitors were reduced to ten men, as Joel Cooper picked up two yellow cards. The homesters failed to capitalise on the man advantage and were undone when the referee awarded the softest of penalty awards, the spot kick being converted.
The month concluded with the fifth home fixture in six games. League Cup winners Dungannon Swifts travelled to Taylors Avenue on a freezing Tuesday evening, and fell behind to an early goal. Henderson drove in a cross-shot that was bundled in at the back post by Julien Anau, celebrating his first goal for the club with a double somersault (not sure if it included a pike). The Swifts dominated possession, and had an effort rebound off the crossbar before Mark Edgar was denied a goal that would have settled the Carrick nerves when his trademark free kick smacked off the post. In a superb defensive display, where McNally and NcNulty were outstanding, Rangers held on the take maximum points for the second time in February.
As the month ends, Carrick are four points behind Warrenpoint and seven ahead of Ballinamallard, though the County Fermanagh side have a game in hand. The improved performances in recent weeks, plus the fact Rangers have found the net in four league games in a row for the first time this season, has given the Amber Army hope that the drop into the Championship may not be inevitable. Three tough games in early March before the league splits, and then a five-game sprint for survival.
Time to strap in for the ride.