Cliftonville 3 Carrick Rangers 1
Conor McMenamin’s hat-trick returned 10-man Cliftonville to winning ways in the Danske Bank Premiership as victory over Carrick Rangers saw the margins narrowed to just four points between the top five sides in the table.
After McMenamin’s early opener, the dismissal of midfielder Liam Bagnall looked to have thrown a spanner in the works of the Reds’ prospects of a first league win since New Year’s Day but a second strike before half-time put the hosts firmly in control
Michael Smith pulled one back for the Gers, who were stunned by the Richard Brush save that stopped Lloyd Anderson drawing them level before McMenamin’s penalty restored the two-goal advantage that Cliftonville would not relinquish.
On the first anniversary of his appointment, Paddy McLaughlin made three changes to the side that overcame Rathfriland Rangers on Irish Cup duty at the weekend.
Brush was back between the sticks and, after being sidelined since picking up an injury in last month’s encounter with the Gers, captain Chris Curran returned to the action in the middle of the park, while McMenamin was restored to the line-up in place of the injured Thomas Maguire.
New striker Michael McCrudden – still searching for his first Reds goal since being recruited from Derry City in early January – was named on the home bench, where he was accompanied by midfielder Aaron Harkin, still edging his way back to fitness after being absent for most of the season.
After producing what boss Niall Currie conceded was a substandard performance in their weekend thumping by Crusaders, Carrick listed four amendments to their team as Daniel Magill, Michael Smith, Kyle Cherry and Liam Hassin were thrown in from the start.
Former Cliftonville striker Darren Murray – another who entered the evening without a goal to his name for his new side – retained his place in attack, with Anderson given the nod and hopeful of repeating the scoring heroics that led the Gers taking full points against Cliftonville little more than a fortnight ago.
Deadline day loan signing Alexander Gawne was named on the visiting bench just eight days after registering the only goal of parent club Coleraine’s victory over the north Belfast side.
After going close to scrambling in a sixth minute opener, McMenamin got his angles spot on just 60 seconds later when he plucked a Conor McDermott set play out of the air and his clever turn allowed him to take advantage of goalkeeper Harry Doherty committing himself by rolling the ball into the net.
In comfortable control without being dominant, Cliftonville were dealt a huge blow just before the half-hour when Bagnall collected his marching orders after unnecessarily barging into Cherry in the middle of the park and sparking a minor scuffle which ended with the home midfielder being shown a straight red card by referee Jamie Robinson.
Carrick understandably began to enjoy greater possession thereafter but a defensive error cost them dearly on the stroke of half-time when Joe Gormley stole in on the right and teed McMenamin up for his second right-footed finish of the night.
A second-half devoid of noteworthy incident looked set to be petering out into an ultimately comfortable win until Smith’s 67th minute header from Lee Chapman’s delivery reduced the arrears and revived Rangers’ hopes of salvaging something – and they looked certain to draw level 11 minutes from time when Anderson popped up with a point-blank header that was somehow clawed against the woodwork by Brush.
If that deflated the Gers’ hopes, they were snuffed out entirely soon later when McMenamin’s pass set Gormley clear and, when he was clattered inside the box by Doherty, McMenamin stepped up to net from the spot and make sure of the victory that, while keeping McLaughlin’s men in fifth place, narrows the gap at the top to just four points between a quintet of challengers.
CLIFTONVILLE: Brush, McDermott, Ives, Harney, C Curran, R Curran, Bagnall, Doherty, Gormley, McMenamin, Donnelly. Subs: Dunne, Harkin, Foster (McMenamin, 87 mins), McCrudden (Gormley, 89 mins), Rocks (Doherty, 90 mins), McCurry.
CARRICK: Doherty, Neale, Surgenor, Rodgers, Chapman, Magill, Smith, Cherry, Hassin, Murray, Anderson. Subs: Nicholl, Carson, Reynolds (Murray, 87 mins), Colligan, Dunne, Gawne (Cherry, 66 mins).
REFEREE: Jamie Robinson (Portadown)