Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Europa League: Braniff aims to keep flying high for Portadown

Bryan Adams can celebrate his summer of ’69 but Kevin Braniff will not forget his summer of 2010.

Portadown’s travelling man has been clocking up the air miles but he remains as bright as a button.

Most of us would value a break after two Northern Ireland matches against Turkey and Chile in the Americas but Braniff has also ventured on a stag party adventure in Poland, whisked his girlfriend off to Spain for a week and then wiped the smile off Skonto Riga faces in Latvia when he ghosted past defenders to allow Richard Lecky to slam home the winner.

The 27-year-old is happy to be on home soil, but it won’t be long before he’s hitting the airport again as the Ports travel to Azerbaijan next week.

Lecky’s goal in Latvia has the mid-Ulster men dreaming of more Europa League miracles as they host Qarabag in a first leg tie at Shamrock Park tonight (7.45pm).

The underdogs will feel they can bite again and it’s just as well Braniff doesn’t let home sickness or travel sickness bother him.

“That Northern Ireland trip involved a lot of travelling with New York, Connecticut, Peru, Chile and Madrid among the destinations with a lot of time on planes and on the road,” said Braniff.

“I guess you could say I am used to it now. I don’t mind it, it’s what I’ve come to expect. I’ve been constantly on the road or in the air this summer. It’s nice to see other countries and cultures though — places I have never been before.

“I’m a bit relieved we aren’t off to Azerbaijan this week as that would have hurt our preparations. But I’m feeling great. I don’t feel I’m in pre-season because I have been in good shape and the Northern Ireland tour kept my fitness levels high. I’ve had only two or three weeks off which means my fitness is as good as it has been.

“Being away with Northern Ireland was a great feeling and they are a wonderful bunch of lads. I thought the team performed really well.”

Qarabag will represent an even tougher assignment for Ronnie McFall’s side than Skonto Riga, but the incentive of a possible showdown with Juventus or Liverpool in the next round is another juicy carrot dangling in front of the players’ eyes and they will believe they can beat anyone.

“I’ve never seen the lads so confident,” added Braniff.

“They are buzzing. Confidence is the best thing a footballer can have and there is no shortage of that here now.

“This team are a good side but if we can get off to a good start then perhaps we can achieve another great result. There is no pressure on us, we aren’t the favourites. Football is about who performs on the occasion and we might surprise them.

“We created chances in Latvia and we can do that again.”

Wherever Portadown’s European odyssey goes from here, the players can bask in the glory of the club’s first win on the continent in 36 years.

“It’s a great story for the Irish League and for Portadown,” said the Northern Ireland international.

“36 years is a long time and it’s great to make history in that sense. Hopefully, we can now go one better.”

Another check-in desk awaits the former Millwall man and he hopes to check-in with hope and expectation after a positive result tonight.

l PORTADOWN’S opponents eventually arrived in Northern Ireland late last night just as officials were looking into the possibility of rearranging the tie.

FK Qarabag’s travel plans were thrown into chaos when the British embassy in Baku declared they would need a month to process the club’s Visa applications and, once that hurdle was overcome, plans to charter a private plane almost fell through when they missed the 48-hours notice required by local air chiefs.

A Portadown spokesman explained: “Qarabag then looked into boarding a scheduled flight which would have got them into Belfast at 5pm today.

“We had considered delaying the kick-off until 9pm or even moving to Friday, but thankfully the issue has been resolved.”