A last minute equalizer from the penalty spot broke Armagh City hearts at Holm Park on Saturday, as Marty Rice’s side saw two points slip from their grasp after Paul Carvill’s late free-kick looked to have propelled the Eagles to a vital three points against fellow NIFL Championship strugglers Larne.
City made two changes to the side that thumped Lurgan Celtic a week ago, with youngster Eoin Toal returning to the heart of the defence in place of Stephen Hutchinson, while Dale Montgomery returned from suspension to take Matthew Hynds’ spot on the right wing.
The home side went on the attack from the opening whistle and almost had the ball in the net inside five minutes. A scramble in the Larne box saw Conor Mullen pick up the ball and as he went down under a challenge from keeper Connor Malcolmson the ball broke to Eamon Kelly who fired a shot off the foot of the post from a tight angle.
The visitors soon came into the game and had their first effort on goal after a quarter of an hour when James McCabe sprung the offside trap before shooting tamely at John Connolly in the City goal.
Larne had the better of possession as the half wore on, although without much to show for their efforts until a few minutes before the break when Connolly had to get down sharply to deny Eamon Fyfe. From the ensuing corner it was full-back Conor Kerr to the rescue as he cleared Chris Rodgers’ towering header off the line.
It was City who had the last effort of the half when Sean Mallon, on as a first half substitute for the injured Luke Grimley, picked up the ball just inside the Larne half before unleashing a thunderous 35-yard effort which cracked off the crossbar with Malcolmson beaten.
The second half opened in a midfield battle with few real chances to threaten at either end until defender Rodgers again caused problems in the City box as he met a long throw but headed just wide of the post.
Marty Rice introduced Shea Campbell to the City attack and the move paid off almost immediately as the veteran striker broke free of the Larne defence before being dragged down 20 yards from goal.
While City fans felt a clear goal-scoring opportunity had been denied defender Michael McKenna escaped personal punishment, but the free-kick was duly dispatched into the bottom corner by Paul Carvill for his third goal of the season to give Armagh a crucial lead with 10 minutes to go.
Larne pushed everyone forward in search of an equalizer, as City dropped deeper and struggled to have any outlet.
Fyfe fired an effort wide for the Inver Park side, before Connolly did brilliantly to deny Rodgers on a pair of occasions as City desperately hung on to their lead.
The pressure eventually told in the last minute of injury time when a hopeful ball into the box saw Rodgers beat Ultan Lennon to the ball as he attempted to clear and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Michael Smith confidently struck the spot-kick into the bottom left corner past the despairing dive of Connolly with practically the last kick of the game.
While the result may have been a fair reflection of the game, the manner of the equalizer was clearly of great disappointment to City who saw a chance to close the gap to the visitors slip from their grasp.
Marty Rice will look for his side to show their character on Saturday as they look to bounce back away to Knockbreda, with the Belfast side sitting directly above City in the table.
Armagh City: John Connolly, Conor Kerr, Paul Carvill, Ultan Lennon, Eoin Toal, Luke Grimley (Sean Mallon), Eamon Kelly, Johnny McSorley (Matthew Hynds), Jasir Camara, Dale Montgomery (Shea Campbell), Conor Mullen. Subs not used: Thai Blevins, Gary Boyle.
Larne: Connor Malcolmson, Chandler Douglas, Gerard Thompson, Chris Rodgers, Michael McKenna, Scott Irvine, Eamon Fyfe, Matthew Henry , Daniel Culbert, James McCabe, Michael Smith. Subs not used: Conall McGrandles, Shaun McGoran.