It was the ultimate heart-breaker for Portadown — especially for goalkeeper Neil Armstrong — when they conceded a goal three minutes into injury-time to deny them victory over Skonto of Latvia and their first European win in 36 years.
The 34-year-old stand-in keeper — between the posts as regular man David Miskelly was on holiday — had turned in a stunning display in this Europa League tie to keep it at 1-0 for the Ports.
But on literally the last kick, brilliant midfielder Juris Laizans unleashed a free-kick from the edge of the box, and the veteran keeper, with a melee of players blocking his view, was finally beaten at his near post.
“The defensive wall split — otherwise the goal would never have happened,” said Armstrong. “It really was heart-breaking after the way the entire team played.
“We were virtually out on our feet against a team of full-timers who make up the nucleus of the Latvian international team. It was a great show.”
The goal equalised a 37th minute gift from Armstrong’s opposite number Karspars Ikstens, who parried a long-range effort by Wesley Boyle and in raced Richard Lecky to blast it home.
“Ronnie (McFall, the manager) told me to put myself about and that’s what I did,” said Lecky. “I really thought we’d won it, but I suppose we have to be happy with a one-all draw against such class opposition. We did ride our luck at times.”
Skonto hit the Ports’ woodwork twice as they dominated the first 25 minutes — through Nathan Junior and Renars Rode — and Richard Clarke hacked one off the line, but the home side came more into it and deserved Lecky’s spot of opportunism.
Armstrong kept the Ports in it after the break, somehow tipping over, beating out and holding rockets from Arturs Karasausks, Juris Laizans and Nathan Junior. But the last 15 minutes told on the brave, determined Ports, especially when Chris Ramsey was sent off on a second yellow card.
McFall said: “I’m proud of the team. They showed great belief and I’m up-beat about the return match. We’ll have Kevin Braniff available and that will give us added options.”
McFall was left-back in the Ports team that recorded that win 37 years ago — they beat Valur of Reykjavik (Iceland) 2-1 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup in September, 1974.
“We deserved a historical repeat tonight,” he added. “I thought the sending-off was harsh and it had a bearing on the result.”
PORTADOWN: Armstrong, Redman, O’Hara, Ramsey, Kelly, Boyle, Clarke, Mouncey, Teggart, Lecky, McCafferty. Subs: Mackle, Baker, Haire, Paget, McCullough.
SKONTO RIGA: Ikstens, Rode, Dubra, Smirnovis, Laizans, Maksimenko, Fertovs, Tarasovs, Sineimivs, Junior, Karasausks. Subs: Srarkous, Karavajevs, Sevlakovs, Kulakovs, Ouda, Jurovskis.
Referee: Domagoj Vuckov (Croatia).