| 7.7°C Belfast

Europa League: McFall backing Portadown to rise to the occasion

Poatadown will face a stern test of character as they make the arduous journey to Azerbaijan for Thursday’s second leg Europa League match against the skilled FC Qarabag.

The obstacles include a 2-1 ‘home’ deficit against a free-flowing team, plus the absence of top Euro marksman Richard Lecky and defensive kingpin Darren Kelly.

And added to that are the 40-degree temperatures, the four-hour time difference and the fact that Azerbaijan is in Asia, the most far-flung ‘Europa’ opposition the Ports could face.

But win or lose, manager Ronnie McFall is convinced that his team will rise to the occasion and show true character.

“Even though we lost the home tie to two late goals to their superb passing game and the talents of two-goal Afran Ismayilov — a winger of supreme skill — I have nothing but praise for my players,” said McFall.

“They are an excellent group of lads and I haven’t a word of criticism about any of their displays at Shamrock Park on Thursday night.

“At the best of times, this return match would be difficult enough.

“But it can’t be helped that Richard and Darren won’t be able to make it, through work commitments.

“It’s an occupational hazard in the part-time Irish League set-up, and I know they’re both gutted that they can’t make it.

“Richard has scored all three goals in our three European outings so far, and Darren’s central defence partnership with Keith O’Hara is settling into one of the best in the Irish League.

“I know the odds are stacked against us, but there’s a great spirit in the team and they’ll give it their all.

“We did play it a bit cautiously on Thursday night, but if we had gone for all-out attack against Qarabag, they’d have skinned us.

“We kept them at bay in the first-half, restricting them to long-range shots, and got that wonderful break-away goal through Richard to take the lead.

“But their full-time training told in the end.”

Big Lecky — a revelation in the Europa League — said he was really sad at not going, “but because of my work I’m restricted to holiday dates”.

He added: “I’m loving this competition, and it really has bonded the team together, especially that unexpected first round win against Skonto of Latvia.

“Whatever way you look at it, this has been tremendous experience, and it certainly beats the usual pre-season friendlies against junior teams.

“It has tightened us up.”

Belfast Telegraph