Portadown 1 Crusaders 3
With the Carling Premiership at the half-way stage, the shrewd managers of Portadown and Crusaders used their after-match post-mortems to claim that champions Linfield would be difficult to catch in the title race.
Ports boss Ronnie McFall, whose dearth of replacements for his four injured first-teamers probably cost his side the points on Saturday, saw his side slip five points behind the Blues.
“In a situation like ours, they would have a replacement of equal quality ready to fill in,” he said.
“Linfield have two teams, really.
“We can hold our own with anyone when we have our full side available, but we’re really handicapped right now with so many missing — Matthew Tipton, Wes Boyle, Sean Mackle and Tim Mouncey.”
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter commented: “We’re now 13 points adrift of Linfield in fifth place. We’ve drawn too many games and it’s a tall order to catch them.”
For McFall, it was his lack of reserves that was the difference in this game and Baxter’s use of his bench-men that turned it around.
The Crues — even though they opened the scoring on 11 minutes with a fiercely-disputed penalty — were lucky to turn around all-square.
For reasons best known to himself, referee Raymond Crangle pointed to the spot after an innocuous tangle between Ports’ Kevin Braniff and Crues captain Colin Coates, who gratefully banged the ball home from the spot.
McFall described it as “a mystery, known only to the ref but nobody else inside Shamrock Park”, while Baxter said: “Colin thought there was a slight push, but I’d have been very annoyed if a penalty like that had been awarded against us.”
Portadown, though, showed real character and levelled on 24 minutes.
Conor McCloskey did the spadework up the right, cut back to Shane McCabe and he swept home from about 14 yards — no less than the Ports deserved.
But after the interval, Baxter produced his master stroke and sent on Declan Caddell and Jordan Owens.
Within three minutes, Caddell raced through and scored with his first touch of the ball, with the usually reliable Ports central defence no better than spectators.
That set the mood and Chris Morrow sealed it 20 minutes from time when, after big Brian Gartland got himself in a mess at the back, he was robbed by Michael Halliday who squared for Chris Morrow to crack number three.
Said Baxter: “We were second best in the first-half, but I had good reserves standing by and the double substitution turned the match around.
“We had to change the shape totally, and we deserved to win it.”
McFall, though, did not have the luxury of established men on the bench, the only change available being to bring on defender Chris Ramsey for tiring midfielder Richard Clarke.
“We’re short of strikers,” he said. “We’re missing Tipton badly (broken collar bone) and he’ll be out for at least four more weeks.
“Hopefully we can stay within the top three in the league until things turn around.
“You need all your artillery in the race for the league.
“I have to say, though, that poor defending for the second and third goals, plus that unbelievable penalty decision, cost us the match.”
Man-of-the-match Coates, said: “We got it tight in the first-half and, as far as the penalty goes, you take what you get in this game.
“The boss made an excellent decision to change it at half-time — tactics at their best.
“We really tightened up after that and we kept tabs on their sole striker, Kevin Braniff, who’s a hot handful.
“We deserved the win, but we really are well behind and we can only hope the Blues slip up.”