Portadown 0 Cliftonville 1
George McMullan’s late penalty sunk Portadown on Saturday and brought Cliftonville ever-closer to dusting off their passports for another European adventure this summer.
With fourth place in the Carling Premiership now carrying continental rewards, both sides entered this contest knowing that three points would significantly improve their chances of earning a Europa League berth.
The Ports, still smarting from a miserable fortnight which saw them lose the Co-operative Insurance Cup Final before exiting the Setanta and Irish Cups, carved out the better openings and twice struck the woodwork — through Brian Gartland and Richard Lecky — while Kevin Braniff somehow thundered over the top from point-blank range.
Lecky was denied what looked a certain goal thanks to an excellent save from Cliftonville’s rookie keeper Jack Duffin.
However, the 63rd minute dismissal of Braniff for speaking out of turn to an assistant referee helped swing things in the visitors’ favour and they bagged the only goal of the game two minutes from time when ref Colin Burns pointed to the spot following Keith O’Hara’s foul on Stephen Garrett.
O’Hara joined Braniff in making an early exit from proceedings and McMullan stepped up to convert his kick.
For Cliftonville midfielder Ryan Catney, the victory gave his side the opportunity to end a frustrating campaign on a high.
“I know that our fans expect us to be challenging for titles and trophies but getting into Europe would be no mean feat for us,” said the 24-year-old, who will be back in action tonight when the Reds travel to Dundalk on Setanta Sports Cup semi final duty.
“We've been missing players all season long and it can be hard to dig results out when you're having to chop and change every week.
“Myself and Ciaran Donaghy were out with hernia problems, Ronan Scannell's a broken cheekbone, Ciaran Caldwell broke his ankle, Mark and Barry Holland were out for months, John Connolly's missing at the minute, Peter Hutton's been in and out and there have been plenty of others as well.
“Personally, it's been a frustrating season for me and a lot of the boys would be thinking the same way but, when it comes down to it, we're on the verge of sealing fourth spot and I don't think anybody cares how we do it, just as long as we get the points.”