Cliftonville held by Carrick Rangers at Solitude

Carrick's  Brian McCaul celebrates
Carrick's Brian McCaul celebrates

Cliftonville failed to make the most of their game in hand in the Danske Bank Premiership title race as Carrick Rangers earned a share of the spoils at Solitude.

Johnny Flynn netted early on to put the hosts in control, but goals inside five minutes from Aaron Harmon and Brian McCaul turned things around before Stephen Garrett pounced to restore parity.

Rangers led at the interval thanks to a sensational long-range blast from Kyle Cherry, but the visitors’ stern resistance was broken again when James Knowles netted from the penalty spot late in the second-half.

With leading scorer Davy McDaid still sidelined with an shoulder injury sustained on New Year’s Day and an ankle complaint delaying new recruit Daniel Hughes’ debut, home boss Gerard Lyttle once again handed Jay Donnelly the nod to lead the line in a team which boasted just one change from Saturday’s Irish Cup victory over Immaculata; Johnny Flynn replacing the suspended Tomas Cosgrove at the back.

Contesting their eighth consecutive away fixture amid a temporary exile from their Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena home, Carrick were able to call upon a host of new faces thanks to some early wheeling and dealing in the January transfer market.

Ex-Knockbreda and Ards midfielder James Wright – who made his debut in the weekend’s Cup win against Banbridge Town – was joined in the arrivals suite by former Glenavon defender Gareth McKeown as well as youngsters Adam Salley and Danny Wallace, both on loan from Linfield, with both McKeown and Salley handed immediate starts.

Originally scheduled for November 28, this fixture was first postponed and then switched as Carrick’s ongoing battle with a waterlogged pitch – which has not hosted a game since a Halloween draw with Ballymena United – continues but, buoyed by recent away form that has seen the east Antrim side pocket valuable points against relegation rivals Ballinamallard United and Warrenpoint Town, Haveron’s side arrived in north Belfast aiming to make the most of their first in a long line of games in hand over teams at the bottom of the standings but fell behind after just seven minutes when Knowles’ corner was met by the towering presence of Johnny Flynn.

Things might have got even worse for Carrick had Chris Curran been able to get the better of goalkeeper Brian Neeson shortly afterwards but, having found their groove and settled into the contest, the visitors drew level on 22 minutes; Cherry’s inviting delivery being seized upon by Harmon, who made no mistake with a fine header.

If home fans were frustrated by their side’s defending for that goal, they were apoplectic when McCaul made it 2-1 soon later. Miguel Chines corner darted all the way through to the back post, where the much-travelled midfielder was on hand to convert.

Within minutes, however, Cliftonville had restored parity thanks to Stephen Garrett following up in the aftermath of Jay Donnelly being thwarted, but Carrick roared back again and pulled back in front when Cherry let fly with a sumptuous strike from distance and looked on with glee as the ball spun into the top corner.

Both sides had penalty appeals waved away either side of the interval – Chines claiming a foul by Flynn before Glenn Taggart survived a handball scare – and Reds defender Marc Smyth had an attempt hacked off the line before nodding another chance over the top.

Curran saw no fewer than three opportunities whistle just wide as Cliftonville laid siege to Brian Neeson’s goal, while Garrett sliced off target ahead of Jay Donnelly sending an effort over the top.

Knowles came within inches of levelling when his free-kick cannoned off the crossbar but he would get his angles spot on 10 minutes from time, stepping up to convert from the penalty spot after being felled in the area by McKeown.

Despite looking the more likely winners, Cliftonville’s momentum was stalled as the clock ticked down but there was almost a moment to remember for young substitute Tiarnan McNicholl, whose volley in a crowded goalmouth was charged down by Ben Roy to guarantee Carrick a vital point.

CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Ives, Flynn, Knowles, Curran, McMullan, Garrett, M Donnelly, Smyth, J Donnelly. Subs: McNicholl (M Donnelly, 76 mins), Brennan, Catney (Flynn, 60 mins), George, Mooney.

CARRICK: Neeson, Traynor, Surgenor, Harmon, Cherry, Chines, Roy, McKeown, Salley, McCaul, Taggart. Subs: Doyle (Roy, 87 mins), McNeill (Chines, 74 mins), Browne (Salley, 89 mins), Wright, Kane.

Ross Dunlop (Carrickfergus)