CLIFTONVILLE 4 PORTADOWN 0
Joe Gormley plundered his fifth hat-trick of the season as Cliftonville banked a vital victory over 10-man Portadown at Solitude.
The striker, who also netted a treble against Institute seven days earlier, was on target with two penalties either side of a deft header before winger Martin Donnelly capped a perfect afternoon for the outgoing Champions.
Goalkeeper David Miskelly joined defender Garry Breen in failing to pass late fitness tests for the visitors, who were also minus the services of Michael Gault and Mark McAllister as well as suspended midfield battler Robert Garrett.
Experienced heads Keith O’Hara and Gary Twigg began the afternoon on the bench as boss Ronnie McFall made his selections with an eye on keeping his star men in the best possible shape for next month’s Irish Cup Final showdown with Glentoran.
Opposite number Tommy Breslin, meanwhile, made just one change to the line-up which swept Institute aside last time out; James Knowles returning to the centre of the park in place of Robert Bayly for a contest which both sides knew would be integral to their chances of securing Europa League football this summer.
The Ports had not registered a point – or even a goal – in this season’s four previous meetings between the teams and their hopes of bucking either trend were undone after just four minutes when goalkeeper Billy Brennan was red carded for fouling Johnny McMurray.
Striker Darren Murray donned the gloves but was powerless to prevent Joe Gormley finding the net from the penalty spot.
Gormley headed home number two early in the second period to set a new club record of 38 goals in a single season – and extended that statistic with his second penalty of the day; coolly stroking in after the impressive James Knowles had taken a tumble inside the area.
Martin Donnelly wrapped things up a minute from time to complete a potentially pivotal success in the race for Europe.
CLIFTONVILLE: Cherrie, M Donnelly, Knowles, Seydak, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, Bonner, McMurray. Subs: McGovern, Scannell (Seydak, 70 mins), McMullan, McDaid (McMurray, 57 mins), Winchester (J Donnelly, 62 mins).
PORTADOWN: Brennan, Casement, Redman, Mouncey, P McMahon, Mackle, Murray, Oman, Conaty, Lyttle, Richardson. Subs: O’Hara, Twigg, Judge (Mouncey, 88 mins), McElroy (Conaty, 36 mins), Stewart (Richardson, 81 mins).
REFEREE: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)