Penalty rage fires up Linfield
Portadown 1 Linfield 1: Linfield desperately wanted a victory at Shamrock Park that would send a real statement of intent around the rest of the Danske Bank Premiership but it wasn't mission accomplished.
The Blues were caught on the ropes with a late punch. They paid the penalty for failing to close out the game.
Portadown will argue that they deserved at least a point from this entertaining battle.
In fact they could have recorded their first home triumph of the campaign if Darren Murray had been more clinical. After squandering two simple chances, the Portadown striker stepped up to hammer home the late equaliser from the penalty spot.
Linfield, who had taken the lead thanks to a piece of individual brilliance from Peter Thompson, thought they were going to see out a nervy win.
Instead, they went home cursing the performance of referee Mark Courtney. The visitors claimed the official failed to spot a foul on Thompson just before Billy Joe Burns fell on the ball in the penalty area, giving Murray the chance of redemption in the 88th minute.
So it hasn't taken long for refereeing decisions to be contentious. It was a bitter pill to swallow for David Jeffrey and his men but they will admit that a stalemate was a fair outcome. It was easy though to have plenty of sympathy for Burns who produced an awesome performance in the heart of the visitors' defence alongside Michael Gault.
Burns was dominant in the air, decisive on the ground and he made so many crucial clearances. But at the end he was apologetic in the dressing room. It was a cruel twist of fate for the big defender but Portadown showed enough hunger and spirit to underline their strength this season.
Both sides are much improved, though both are still a work in progress.
Jeffrey was angry at some of the officiating from last season and it didn't take long for that theme to return.
"Billy Joe fell on the ball so it's a mystery how a penalty was given," he said. "If penalties are going to be given for that this year then gee whizz."
His counterpart Ronnie McFall took a rather different view. "He caught the ball and it was a penalty kick – if the keeper had done that you would have said it's a good save. We thought we should have had another penalty when Gary Twigg went down but the late one was a blatant penalty kick."
Jeffrey, while frustrated with the late equaliser, was heartened with his side's performance. "There's a resilience and a good life about us," he added. "I thought some of the football we played was really attractive. We want to win but we want to win playing good stuff and we did that for periods. Portadown made it difficult for us and we knew it would be a tough game. A draw may be a fair outcome but it's just the manner of how things unfolded."
The first half served up more fouls than flair but Michael Carvill missed the first clear cut opportunity. Racing clear and one-on-one with keeper David Miskelly he drilled the ball low but the Ports number one blocked it with his legs.
But the home side threatened at times too. Gary Breen headed over from a Kevin Braniff cross and the latter's angled drive stung the hands of keeper Jonny Tuffey.
Twigg collided in the box with Gault and hit the deck but Courtney waved away penalty appeals. The game really came to life after the break. Thompson, by his own admission, endured a torrid time last season but his goal in the 52rd minute was another reminder of his finishing prowess.
It was Pistol Pete at his best, driving forward in the box and nutmegging his former team-mate Chris Casement before poking the ball low past Miskelly.
It was flash of the old magic the Northern Ireland international can deliver when he's high on confidence and Linfield will hope he's back in business.
It was a goal made by Thompson and finished by him but Portadown weren't finished. The visitors needed a second goal to breathe easier and they almost got it when Sean Ward's rasping drive whistled past the upright. Then came the first of two glaring misses from Murray. Twigg pounced on a Gault slip and fed the striker but he failed to make a proper connection in front of goal and the golden chance was gone.
It was a let off for the Blues and they almost made the mid-Ulster men pay but Miskelly produced a stunning save to beat out a Thompson header after Ward had provided the delicious cross. Then came Murray's second blooper. The ball fell kindly to him after Tuffey had fisted out Twigg's drive but his shot flew high over the target. Portadown fought to the end and the penalty gave Murray his 'third time lucky' opportunity. Burns, under pressure from Murray, fell in the box, his hand made contact with the ball and Courtney pointed to the spot.
Tuffey got a hand to his spot-kick but the ball crept over the line. Portadown showed that they have quality in their ranks and they were quick out of the blocks with no post-European weariness to shake off.
McFall added: "We just need a better balance in the midfield and it would be nice to add a central midfielder and a wide player. All the games in this league are tough."
Jeffrey will echo that sentiment. He welcomes champions Cliftonville to Windsor Park on Saturday.