Fans’ agony after club relegated, but chiefs vow to return to top flight
You'd have thought Portadown Football Club had won the Premiership title on Tuesday night, instead of being ousted from the top echelons and into the shadows of the Championship.
The inevitable drop finally happened against a much sharper Ards at Clandeboye Road - 3-2 was the score.
But those super Reds fans brought great credit to themselves and their town as they sang for 90 minutes and beyond, giving manager Niall Currie and his players a real lift as reality kicked in.
No more Linfield, Glentoran or Glenavon for at least a season, and maybe longer, as the Ports prepare to hit the road to the likes of Castlederg, PSNI and Ballyclare. The handicap of being docked 12 points - 18 when you factor in other follies - and banned from signing professionals until June was impossible.
Fans suggested that the IFA should have simply relegated the Ports from the start of the season as punishment for a series of misdemeanours, and let them try to "escape" with a level playing field. The overwhelming feeling on Tuesday night was "better to have imposed a swift, sudden death than the slow, painful punishment that led inevitably to the Championship after a traumatic season of suffering".
Everything, including the kitchen sink, was thrown at Shamrock Park by the IFA, giving the Ports no hope of survival.
It's a bitter blow to a Jekyll and Hyde sort of town, where retail is struggling but industry is booming. Senior football will be sadly missed in the tightly-knit, football-mad community.
The fans weren't blaming Currie. He arrived on the scene midway through the season horribilis with the club officials already having done the damage. The folly of illicit payments to players led to the penalties (overly harsh, most fans feel) - followed by a series of expensive and futile legal spats that made Portadown something of a laughing stock in the Irish League.
With hindsight, Currie should have been appointed from the start of the hubris. But it's doubtful whether even he could have done the football equivalent of walking on water.
With tears welling in his eyes on Tuesday night as he viewed the supporters, he said: "I wonder do all our players realise how lucky they are to have fans like this. They are incredible. They sang from start to finish and embraced the players when it was all over."
He paid tribute to the young players and most of the seniors who had done their utmost during the traumatic year. But he added that some of the seniors had let the Ports down as they battled for the lifeboats. Totally exempt from that criticism was the wonderful, dedicated Robert Garrett, who gave his all for the cause over the year, and with whom the Ports are moving heaven and earth to persuade him to stay.
Sorrow over the Ports demise goes far beyond Shamrock Park. They are widely regarded as the best supported and biggest of the provincial clubs, with especially their great County Armagh rivals Glenavon mourning their departure.
Said Mourneview director Eddie Drury: "Both clubs relish the great derby matches, but it was the hard-fought and lucrative Boxing Day fixtures that really caught the imagination.
"We'll miss those contests, and - not to put too fine a point on it - the revenue they created. And other clubs will miss the hordes of travelling Ports fans. Despite the rivalries, there are many close friendships across Portadown and Glenavon."
Niall Currie promised "we will rebuild from here" as he reflected on similar ups and downs with his former clubs, not least Ards who ironically completed the relegation job on Tuesday.
And the Ports fans needed no reminder that their team faced the drop in 2008 when an administrative error saw them fall out of the top reaches of Irish League Football.
But that was different. Portadown had well-established talent throughout their ranks, and not only bounced back, but won the League Cup into the bargain. Currie will have to start from scratch this time, although he says he has a plethora of experienced men lined-up who could repeat the experience.