I'd planned to meet up with The Bruce in Belfast on Thursday 1st July to watch a bit of World Cup action and catch up over a few beers. To our horror we discovered that there were no fixtures scheduled for that night. Rather than sit in the pub all evening we decided to do something a bit different and head 20 miles south to Portadown in order to catch the home leg of their Europa League 1st round qualifier against FC Skonto (from Riga in Latvia).
We arrrived in Portadown in good time and found ourselves driving through the town centre. It was a pleasant enough place, although judging by the decorations we could only deduce that either Last Night of The Proms was being held in Portadown this year or they were fully prepared for the annual 12th July celebrations.
On that note, I'll admit to being unsure as to which side of Ulster's social/religious divide Portadown FC sat so I was slightly unsure as to how my Hearts top would be received, not that anyone supports Hearts due to their religion (well I don't...given that I dont really have a religion) but all it takes is one or two extremist nutters to make for an unpleasant situation and Northern Ireland has it's fair share of those. The Bruce had opted for a cheeky Liverpool number, appropriately red and always a safe choice anywhere in Ireland. As it transpired Portadown FC like most Northern Irish football clubs other than Linfield, Donegal Celtic, or Cliftonville, who are firmly positioned on opposing sides of the fence, appeared pretty moderate in their identity. There's no doubt they stand firmly behind the Northern Irish (and British) flag but there seemed to be nothing noticeably sectarian about the place. Having said that, Celtic tops were about as common as two parent families in Dundee and the lads who's outfits suggested they'd just tucked away their flutes after an early evening band practice were a bit of an eye opener for a couple of east coast jocks like us.
Anyway, after arriving at the ground haivng been pointed towards Shamrock Park by a Heckler and Koch toting PSNI officer (having unsuccessfully asked a bemused local woman pushing a buggy for directions - come on, Portadown really isn't that big, she either didn't like us or couldn't understand us) we set about our quest for a beer. I'd managed to suss out a decent sounding bar called The Chalet thanks to to a Portadown fan's website but the boarded up windows which greeted us suggested it had done less recent business than Big Mags from Salamander Street. Undetterred we approached some local lads and determined that there was a social club at the other side of the ground with a more than adequate bar. We ventured towards the door discussing how we were going to get round the technicality of not having a member to sign us in only to find that pressing the buzzer, walking in and asking for two pints was all that was required. The place wasn't exactly bustling with activity in the manner we'd envisaged although as it was essentially a pre-season encounter we'll assume it's more atmospheric during the league season. Our arrival almost doubled the number of customers, adding to the two old guys at the bar and the Granddad happily enjoying a quiet pint whilst his grandchildren entertained the other customers and shared some quavers. The social club was being treated more as a local bar than a pre-match drinking venue on this particular evening. Nobody present appeared to have any intention of watching the game and The Bruce and I even fielded a few questions on whom Ports were playing along with a few Old Firm related questions from one of the old guys who turned out to be utterly hammered. Indeed, unsure of what the correct answer might be we tried to remain as neutral as possible when the hammered old guy asked us which of the Old Firm we expected to win the SPL next season. The Bruce's diplomatic assertion that Dundee Utd are capable of splitting the Old Firm next term was apparently 'the biggest load of shite he'd every heard' and as drunk as he was, he was probably right.
We quaffed our pints of Harp and left the club about 10 minutes prior to kick off expecting the crowds to have formed. The cat casually strolling across the tarmac, the only other sign of life, shot us an inquisitive look before continuing it's nightly walk. Anfield Road, or even Gorgie Road, it was not.
Having made our way through the turnstiles at the main stand (the only stand open for home fans) we hung up the flag at the rear of the stand and took our seats in the back row directly in front of it. The game itself was pretty average fare. Skonto had the better of the early stages and Ports rode their luck on several occasions with Skonto hitting the woodwork twice and having another effort cleared off the line. Once the teams settled down it was often tough going to keep the interest levels up, thankfully The Bruce and I shared the usual banter which helped pass the time. Portadown took the lead through Richard Lecky on 33 minutes with a well taken goal which was the cue for the Portadown hardcore to launch into their repetoire of songs. To everyone's credit the atmosphere from then on in was top notch and the on field action really heated up after the break. There were a smattering of Skonto supporters in the away stand to our left, the Bruce and I surmised that they were mostly partners and families of the players and as such christened them the Skonto wags. For many people present (myself included) the actual event seemed to be equally important as the quality of football on show and every single person we encountered was really welcoming and friendly. The lads we's approached outside The Chalet came over mid way through the game, enquired about our flag and invited us out for a couple of post match beers with them. Sadly we had to decline, The Bruce was driving so we wanted to return to Belfast and ditch the car as soon as possible in order to preserve valuable drinking time. Nevertheless, it was great of them to make the offer and it was much appreciated.
As the second half progressed it looked as though Portadown were going to hang on for a famous victory. To our anguish they were to be denied by virtually the last kick of the game with Skonto equalising from a set piece stemming from a harsly awarded free kick. Their keeper, Neil Armstrong, looked utterly crushed as he picked the ball out of the net having been in excellent form for the entire 90 minutes. As the Ports players dusted themselves down the hardcore launched into a final song in fitting tribute to the sterling effort their team had displayed.
So 1-1 it was and we assumed that was that. Surely a trip to Riga to face the Latvian champions who only required a goalless draw would be beyond Portadown. It seemed not. Richard Lecky scored again during the return leg last Thursday in order to send Ports through to the next round and a tie with FK Quarabag of Azerbaijan. This was a truly momentous achievement and thoroughly well deserved judging by the level of commitment and work ethic shown in the first leg. I think this calls for another Winner Stays On feature (Europa League edition). It would be rude not to!
Thanks to all at Portadown FC for a great night. The Bruce Tartan Army wish them all the best in the next round and for the forthcoming league season.
Main entrance to Shamrock Park.
The teams line up before kick off.
The most obscure slogan on the top of a stand this side of Motherwell.
The trusty flag made an early season appearance.
Wall outside the ground.
Photos taken by Russ and Graham.