IRISH LEAGUE OPINION: Ports left searching for solutions after week to forget

Pat McGibbon will close out a week-long run of home fixtures tomorrow (Saturday) hoping to record victory after back-to-back defeats. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Pat McGibbon will close out a week-long run of home fixtures tomorrow (Saturday) hoping to record victory after back-to-back defeats. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

Peter McCann stepped out of the away dressing room under the Shamrock Park stand a few minutes past 10 o’clock on Tuesday night flashing a smile familiar to many Ports fans.

As McCann reached the car park he was stopped by one Ports fan waiting to pass on a special gift - recorded highlights of the title-winning 2002 Irish League campaign in which the playmaker proved such a potent force.

McCann, the last successful traditional winger in Ports colours, was heading for home having rolled back the years as the architect of Rathfriland Rangers’ Mid-Ulster Cup shock.

Rangers’ 2-1 success provided a landmark result for the Amateur League outfit and left Portadown nursing a second home embarrassment inside four days, arriving off the back of the weekend blues against Ballymena United.

As a metaphor for Portadown’s demise since that last league triumph, it was hard to ignore that the supporter’s presentation to McCann came in VHS form - a largely defunct format forever linked in the minds of a generation of Shamrock Park fans to footage of glory days captured by New Way Video or home tapings off television.

McCann thrilled supporters during the early 2000s as a livewire presence on the flanks but his performance on Tuesday proved a lesson in midfield control, a masterclass time-and-motion study that helped Rangers dominate despite a Ports line-up packed with senior playing time.

Links to the past, however, extend beyond sporadic sightings of former players back in town.

The Portadown substitutes’ bench may have been short of Irish League minutes but sharing the dug-out in the Mid-Ulster Cup tie was a management team of Pat McGibbon, Vinny Arkins and Trevor Williamson able to boast decades of domestic experience.

Performances across the past week against Ballymena United and Rathfriland Rangers served as a stark reminder of the gap between current goals and former achievements.

Circumstances beyond the control of manager McGibbon have dictated the pressures of this season’s Irish League campaign extend past on-pitch performances.

But displays this season suggest the weight of a 12-point league deduction and issues with morale dating back beyond McGibbon’s appointment have started to sap the enthusiasm and energy so welcome across the summer and opening weeks of the Danske Bank Premiership.

Restrictions imposed by the Irish Football Association on the capture of players on professional terms have left McGibbon with limited transfer targets but pre-season signs offered fans hope of improved fitness, form and flair.

McGibbon maintains his conviction in the alchemy of meshing existing names with fresh faces into a formula that can rescue the Ports from relegation.

However, past displays strengthen fears that the line remains fine between faith and failure - with current limitations presenting unique opportunities to this Ports squad but with too few to date able to take full advantage.

Ballymena displayed greater drive and physicality across the first half in Saturday’s Danske Bank Premiership defeat, with a 2-0 reverse wrapped up effectively within the opening half-hour period thanks to goals by Kyle Owens and Johnny McMurray.

The Ports lacked spark under the floodlights against Rangers and Eoin Kirwan’s close-range effort provided the upper hand before an own goal off goalkeeper Chris McGaughey left it level and Darryl Evans’ header handed the visitors a well-earned lead. Portadown failed to significantly test Rangers goalkeeper Mark Winston across the second half.

Minor areas of encouragement arrived in the second-half improvement against Ballymena and a final line-up on Tuesday that featured centre-back Garry Breen back from injury and recent signing Alan Byrne within a midfield anchor role.

With every point crucial as the Ports face a race to beat the drop, this weekend’s meeting with Cliftonville calls for an upturn in form to close the week-long hat-trick of home tests in positive fashion.

This revamped squad may be in search of a shared bond enjoyed by people such as McCann and Arkins but, at present, the majority of fans would welcome a return to the optimism of the summer.