CLIFTONVILLE 3 CARRICK RANGERS 2
Cliftonville were grateful to goal king Joe Gormley and goalkeeper Brian Neeson for helping them steer past the challenge of Carrick Rangers at Solitude – Gormley for his last-gasp winner and Neeson for the string of saves that stopped the visitors running up a cricket score.
Levi Ives had put the hosts in front with a fine free-kick and, though Gormley’s converted penalty should have put Barry Gray’s men in cruise control, they creaked and wobbled all night before once again caving in to late pressure as Daniel Kelly and Lloyd Anderson pounced to draw the visitors level.
Within seconds of shipping the equaliser, however, Gormley delivered an outrageous lobbed finish that booked Cliftonville’s place in the quarter-finals of the Bet McLean League Cup at the end of a night that Carrick dominated.
Time and again, Neeson thwarted his former employers with a string of eye-catching saves, while opposite number Liam McAuley had nothing to do except retrieve the ball from the back of his net.
After denying Stewart Nixon on four minutes, Neeson repeated the trick on 11 before Ives’ outstanding free-kick broke the deadlock out of nowhere.
Undeterred, Rangers continued to pour forward and Kelly should have done better than to nod a free header wide.
Nixon raced through on goal on 25 minutes but, again, Neeson came out on top and the keeper made a fine flying save to turn Kelly’s header behind from Reece Neale’s 32nd minute corner.
Cliftonville doubled their lead out of the blue when Chris Rodgers felled Ryan Curran inside the box and Gormley stepped up to make no mistake from the penalty spot.
Then, Paul McDowell - presented with an open net thanks to Chapman - completely miscued and the home defence were able to hack the ball clear.
The Reds enjoyed more sustained possession after the break, without being able to work their way through a visiting defence expertly marshalled by Mark Surgenor and Caolan Loughran.
Carrick grew in confidence and were rewarded 12 minutes from time when Kelly rose to meet Chapman’s inch-perfect cross.
Having started with a much-changed defence, the loss of Ives through injury shortly after his goal meant the Reds’ backline had been less than convincing all night long.
Those fears came to bear two minutes from time when possession fell Anderson’s way inside a crowded penalty area but he kept his composure to steer a low effort beyond Neeson’s despairing dive.
With Reds fans audibly restless at the prospect of extra-time, Carrick hearts were broken virtually instantly.
From kick-off, a clipped ball forward was nodded on by Rory Donnelly and bounced just beyond the reach of Loughran, allowing Gormley to nip in for a finish worthy of winning any game – but one which the Gers did not deserve to be subjected to.
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, R Curran, R Donnelly, McDonald, McNulty, Catney, McConnell, Gormley, A Donnelly. Subs: C Curran (McDonald, 57 mins), Garrett (R Curran, 68 mins), J Donnelly, Lavery (Ives, 26 mins), Maguire, McMenamin, Casey.
CARRICK: McAuley, Chapman, Neale, Surgenor, Rodgers, Loughran, Anderson, McDermott, McDowell, G Kelly, Nixon. Subs: Brennan, Murray, Houston, McMillen, Warwick, Green (McDowell, 69 mins), McCauley.
REFEREE: Steven Gregg (Ballyclare)