Supported by more than 1,250 travelling fans, Linfield recorded a hard-fought victory over Carrick Rangers at the Loughshore Leisure Arena in their final pre-split Premiership fixture this evening.

Carrick came into the game needing to win by five goals to clinch a top six spot, whilst Linfield were hoping to keep the pressure on leaders Larne. Both teams were forced into a change apiece from their previous matches. Albert Watson missed out through suspension for Carrick, having picked up a fifth booking, and he was replaced by Steven Gordon. Linfield midfielder Josh Archer picked up an injury in last Friday’s win over Glentoran and he was replaced by Michael Newberry, with Ethan McGee moving into midfield and Daniel Finlayson to right back.

The Blues never get it easy in Carrickfergus and there was an early warning shot for them from a Carrick Rangers free-kick clipped into the box. Former Linfield player Cameron Stewart nodded the ball across the area to striker Danny Gibson who headed straight at Chris Johns from close range.

Carrick Rangers did then take an early lead three minutes later, in the sixth minute of the match. Linfield were unable to defend a corner and, despite being initially rescued by Kirk Millar heading an effort off the line, Stuart King’s men weren’t to be denied as Nedas Maciulaitis followed in to dispatch a header.

The Blues’ first meaningful opportunity following a slow start came on 24 minutes when Kirk Millar’s free-kick delivery to the back post was headed back across goal from Daniel Finlayson to Kyle McClean who was denied by a good save from Ross Glendinning at close range.

Joel Cooper also went close twice in quick succession around the half-hour, firstly latching onto a ball over the top before his half-volley was well saved by Glendinning who took a ball to the face. Moments later, Fitzpatrick teed up Cooper whose low shot was stylishly flicked off the line by Carrick Rangers defender Steven Gordon at a time when the ‘keeper was beaten.

The hosts then could and probably should have doubled their lead in the 34th minute. A loose defensive header was pounced upon by Carrick winger James Teelan who squared it across to Nedas Maciulaitis, but he was unable to net his second as he fired a low shot the wrong side of the post.

That miss would prove costly as Linfield levelled eight minutes later, three minutes before the break. Much of the credit must go to the Blues’ legendary captain Jamie Mulgrew who typically provided the inspiration when his team needed it. The central midfielder somehow ended up bombing down the left wing, bringing the ball down on his chest before showing such great technique and awareness to wrap the outside of his right foot around the ball to find Joel Cooper in the middle with an inch-perfect cross which the winger header in from close range for his 15th goal of the season.

The Blues made a strong finish to the half, going close again before the break as Matthew Clarke fired a volley over from the edge of the box after chesting the ball down.

HT: Carrick Rangers 1-1 Linfield

Linfield started the second half with a real intent and urgency about their play, forcing a corner from the off. Two dangerous crosses in the early stages of the second half caused Carrick trouble. Firstly, a lovely whipped cross from Ethan McGee was well met by Matthew Clarke at the back post and he headed in down into a dangerous area, but it was ever so slightly beyond the reach of Joel Cooper. Soon after, Kirk Millar’s low cross took a wicked deflection and drew a good acrobatic save from Ross Glendinning.

The Blues’ pressure then paid off as they took the lead in the 52nd minute. The ever-impressive Ethan McGee picked up the ball on the edge of the box and drove across a defender to the left of just inside the box where he squeezed in a pinpoint finish across the ‘keeper into the far corner for his second goal for the Club.

Carrick Rangers almost responded three minutes later following a neat move as Andrew Mitchell played an excellent switch ball out to James Teelan on the right wing and he pulled it back centrally to Nedas Maciulaitis who fired straight at Chris Johns from a good position.

Linfield then gave themselves some insurance with a two-goal cushion as they went 3-1 up on 78 minutes. A quick move saw Joel Cooper play in Matthew Clarke down the left and he hammered a low cross to the front post where in-form midfielder Kyle McClean got on the end of it to poke the ball beyond Glendinning for his 14th goal of the season, which is a superb goal return for a central midfielder.

At this point many would have thought the game was over as a contest, but Stuart King’s team obviously didn’t think that as they rallied to make a real game of it, pulling a goal back on 82 minutes to breathe new life into the match. Joe Crowe slid a pass to Danny Gibson running down the right channel and he squared it across to Curtis Allen who, with his pedigree, was never going to miss at close range.

The remaining eight minutes, plus a further five added, were nervy for Linfield who had to face corners, free-kicks and long throw-ins into their box, but they managed to see out a hard-fought win on the road to remain two points behind leaders Larne going into the split.

As fate has it, Linfield kick off their split fixtures this Saturday evening (17:30 KO) for what will be their second trip to face Glentoran at The Oval within the space of eight days.

FT: Carrick Rangers 2-3 Linfield

Written by Jamie Megarry

Match Report Carrick v Linfield