Cliftonville 2 Portadown 3
Linfield are closing in on the summer signing of striker Matthew Tipton, whose final act as a Portadown player looks to have been the delivery of a cherished parting gift.
His first-half hat-trick at Solitude on Saturday earned the Ports the runners-up position in the Carling Premiership and the European qualification that comes along with it but, with Blues boss David Jeffrey itching to hold talks with the Welsh wizard, it’s unlikely Tipton will be around to lead Ronnie McFall’s charge on the continent.
Regardless, McFall was in buoyant mood after watching his patched-up side claim three hard-earned points in a scintillating affair in north Belfast.
“Qualifying for Europe is a brilliant achievement and we’re delighted to have got there because we’ve struggled with injury after injury all season long,” he said
“We’ve had boys playing through the pain barrier in the last few weeks and, even in this game, the likes of Keith O’Hara, Kevin Braniff and Ross Redman shouldn’t have taken part.
“Richard Lecky dislocated his elbow last week but we named him on the bench and it’s a credit to the players that they’ve been prepared to put themselves on the line like that.”
Despite defeat and being leapfrogged by Portadown in the standings, Coleraine’s failure to defeat an understrength Crusaders at nearby Seaview meant that Cliftonville will also be on their travels in the Europa League this summer — news that also pleased McFall.
“Both clubs deserve it,” he added.
“Both of us have been up there challenging all season long and, but for the fact that neither has a squad anything like the size of Linfield, would probably have had a decent shout of winning the league.
“Obviously my priority is Portadown and I’m very pleased we’ve qualified, but I’m pleased for Cliftonville as well because it would have been really unfair on them if they’d missed out, especially on the final day.”
The Reds had started the afternoon knowing that a point would have been enough to secure second place in the table but, 33 years to the day since a 3-2 victory over Portadown earned Cliftonville’s first ever Euro qualification, they looked down and out after just 45 minutes thanks that treble from Tipton (pictured).
Joe Gormley had drawn the hosts level at 1-1 and he struck again to make it 3-2 just before the hour but the Ports held on, meaning the Reds had to rely on news from Seaview.
And, if April 28, 1979 is a date indelibly linked to Cliftonville’s history, then April 28, 2012 will be noted as the day a Jordan Owens goal brought roars of delight from the Solitude faithful.
News of the Crues’ excursions spread like wildfire across the home terraces and, even before referee Mervyn Smyth had whistled for the close of play, both sets of fans were generating a surreal atmosphere borne out of mutual celebration.
“A lot of the players are disappointed to have lost this match and that says a lot for the characters they are, but I've reminded them that they have done themselves and the club proud these last 10 months,” said Reds boss Tommy Breslin.
“You qualify for Europe for your efforts over the course of a season, not one afternoon.
“Losing today means we've finished third and, though we'd naturally have preferred to have ended higher, I think third is probably about right because, over the course of the season, Linfield and Portadown have occupied the top two spots and deserve to have finished there.”