Carrick Rangers beat Ards in first leg of NIFL promotion/relegation play-off

Michael Smith of Carrick
Michael Smith of Carrick
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Carrick Rangers boss Niall Currie’s punched the air with delight after his team took one giant leap to returning to the Danske Bank Premiership following this crucial win at the Loughshore Hotel Arena last night.

Striker Michael Smith grabbed the priceless first half goal against Ards in the promotion/relegation play-off to take Rangers to the brink of a return to the top flight.

Warren Feeney’s Ards have the chance to repair the damage at the Bangor Fuels Arena in the second leg on Monday night, but the odds are now firmly stacked against them as relegation looms ominously.

It has to be said it wasn’t a classic . . . it was a game littered with untidy tackles and misplaced passes.

It took a great saving tackle from Chris Rodgers from to prevent Ards forging ahead after only two minutes.

Gareth Tommons’ miscued shot fell perfect for Michael McLellan and just as he was about the pull the trigger, the big defender came roaring in with a great challenge.

But it was the home supporters who were celebrating on 11 minutes, after Smith’s predatory strike.

Defender Reece Neale whipped in an inviting corner kick from the left which was met by the head of the big striker, who ballooned the net at the near post.

The visitors were almost level two minutes later. McLellan tricked and teased his way past Coalin Coyle on the left before firing in a low drive that looked destined for the bottom corner until giant goalkeeper Aaron Hogg’s finger-tips diverted to safety.

Rangers boss Niall Currie’s plans were then thrown into disarray having lost Craig McMillan and influential defender Caolan Loughran due to injury.

Despite of the disappointment, midfielder Lloyd Anderson almost increased the Rangers lead on 35 minutes, his stinging low drive from distance, stinging the hands of alert shot stopper Sam Johnston.

Now beginning to take a grip of midfield, Ards should have been level on 38 minutes.

McLellan’s excellent vision sent Kyle Cherry racing into the box and, after muscling his way past the challenge of Michael Surgenor, his thumping drive was brilliant beaten away by Hogg.

The action then quickly switched to the other end with Smith charging into the heart of the Ards defence only to see his shot flipped over the top by the alter Johnston.

Ards threatened again 10 minutes after the restart. Josh Kelly’s long throw-in caused mayhem in the home defence which resulted in Cherry’s header being flicked on by McLellan, but Hogg again got down to save at the base of the post.

Rangers then had loud appeals for a penalty when the lively Stewart Nixon went down under a challenge from Damien McNulty, by referee Tony Clarke wasn’t interested.

Hogg came to his team’s rescue once again on 62 minutes. Eoghan McCawl broke through the middle only for his shot to deflect into the path of substitute Mark Kelly, but the big keeper produced another wonder save.

Substitute Darren Henderson them missed the chance of pulling his team level when he shamefully shot wide of the post following a clever cut-back from Mark Kelly – the former Coleraine man held his head in disbelief.

CARRICK RANGES: Hogg, Coyle, Neale, Surgenor, Rodgers, Loughran (McDermott 34), McMillan (Adamczyk 20), Anderson, Kelly, Nixon, Smith (Strain 70).

Unused subs: Malcolmson, Strain, McNeill, McCauley, Gage.

ARDS: Johnston, Kerr, McAllister (Henderson 69), Taylor, Cherry (Nelson 73), McLellan (Kelly 53), Kelly, Tommons, McClean, McCawl, McNulty.

Unused subs: Davidson, Byers, McAleenan, Shearer.

REFEREE: Tony Clarke.