Cliftonville dealt a real title blow by gutsy Carrick Rangers
Cliftonville 3-3 Carrick Rangers
Cliftonville were unable to muster a late winner against a dogged Carrick Rangers during a gripping Solitude showdown last night.
Despite leading through Johnny Flynn, the Reds found themselves 3-2 down at the interval with Aaron Harmon, Brian McCaul and Kyle Cherry registering for the visitors during a goal glut that also saw Stephen Garrett on target for the hosts.
Rangers' stubborn resistance during a second-half onslaught looked set to earn them a huge three points only for James Knowles' late penalty earning Cliftonville a share of the spoils in a result which could prove to have a terminal impact on Gerard Lyttle and co's Danske Bank Premiership title challenge.
The switching of this contest - postponed when Taylors Avenue's ongoing issue with a waterlogged pitch prevented it being staged on November 28 - to Solitude stretched Carrick's run of consecutive away games to eight but their recent form on the road provided cause for optimism.
But their night got off to the worst possible start when Flynn nodded the Reds in front after just seven minutes.
Chris Curran was then denied by Brian Neeson as the hosts threatened to over-run their opponents but, after settling, Carrick levelled as skipper Harmon planted a header beyond Conor Devlin from Cherry's cross.
McCaul pounced to put Rangers ahead with a back-post conversion on 27 minutes but it wasn't long before Garrett scrambled home an equaliser.
A wonderfully-executed long-range strike from Cherry restored Rangers' lead but their margin could have been extended had referee Ross Dunlop not waved away penalty appeals following Flynn's apparent trip on Miguel Chines.
The hosts saw spot-kick shouts of their own fall on deaf ears on 54 minutes when Glenn Taggart stood accused of handling a Garrett cross.
Cliftonville's best chance of levelling looked to have come and gone when Knowles' 78th minute free-kick cracked the crossbar but, just two minutes later, they were awarded a penalty when McKeown nudged Knowles inside the area and the midfielder picked himself up to find the bottom corner.
A last-gasp block from Ben Roy prevented Tiarnan McNicholl from winning it before the night ended on a light-hearted note with home fans offering a standing ovation to Carrick coach - and former Reds ace - Barry Johnston, who was dismissed from the bench for speaking out of turn to ref Dunlop.
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 RANGERS: 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.
Referee: Ross Dunlop (Carrickfergus).