Qarabag’s European rise serves as reminder of special goal for Braniff

Kevin Braniff battling between two Qarabag rivals at Shamrock Park in the 2010 Europa League. Pic by Pacemaker.
Kevin Braniff battling between two Qarabag rivals at Shamrock Park in the 2010 Europa League. Pic by Pacemaker.
  • Patrick Van Dort talks to Kevin Braniff about his Euro adventures with Portadown, Glenavon and Ballymena United - plus one dream moment

At each club across his decade-plus Irish League career Kevin Braniff has provided fans with moments and memories which mark the playmaker out as a special talent.

Glenavon supporters can think back to his four-goal solo showcase in the 2016 Irish Cup semi-final defeat of Crusaders - or his finish in the subsequent final that helped secure the trophy.

Braniff cemented his status as a Ballymena United fans’ favourite by firing home a spectacular long-range last-gasp drive in May to secure the club a return to European football for the first time in 13 seasons, just a few months after joining the club and few minutes after stepping off the substitutes’ bench.

Irrespective of the shirt or setting, Braniff has established a reputation as the man for the big occasion, a player capable of turning the grandest stage into his own personal skills gallery.

But when the 34-year-old opts to hang up his boots, he will look back on one memory that holds special significance.

And it came in front of only a handful of his club’s fans.

Qarabag of Azerbaijan last week lined out against Chelsea in a landmark inaugural Champions League group stage game against a club from the United Kingdom.

For Braniff, that midweek tie turned his mind back seven years to when Portadown held the honour of being the first United Kingdom club to face Qarabag in European competition.

Portadown hold a small place in Qarabag history as a result - with that second-leg meeting on a hot July evening in 2010 providing Braniff with one of his proudest moments in football.

Afran Ismayilov, who was on the bench against Chelsea, had scored a brace in the first leg at Shamrock Park to provide Qarabag with a crucial 2-1 advantage. However, the highlight arrived when Braniff stepped up on 71 minutes in Baku to smash home a free-kick from distance that kept Portadown hopes alive of extending the summer European adventure to a third tie, having reached the second qualifying round by beating Latvia’s Skonto Riga.

Thanks to the power of the internet, a quick search offers footage of that free-kick the scorer still recalls with a smile.

“We always had fans follow us on European trips but because of the journey I don’t think too many made that away leg in Baku,” said Braniff. “But it’s funny how people still talk to me about the goal thanks to watching it on social media.

“Every now and again if someone scores a good free-kick and people talk about it online then someone often throws up my goal.

“It is certainly up as one of the best strikes in my career, that along with one in the Setanta Sports Cup against Drogheda United I caught on the volley but, unfortunately, there were no cameras that night.

“As soon as it left my foot against Qarabag I knew it was a goal and everyone was just buzzing.

“Not only was it a great moment for me, it gave us all a chance of staying in the tie.

“I reckon I was between 35 and 40 yards out. It was one of those crazy moments and the balls used that season in the Europa League were really light so would just fly.

“I thought once we got the free-kick I might as well have a go and that goal gave us a chance.”

Ismayilov left it level in Baku as Qarabag progressed on a 3-2 aggregate scoreline and Braniff is far from surprised to see the club rise up the European football ladder to now compete in the club game’s biggest competition.

“We didn’t know at all what to expect from the trip but the country was really nice and the people very friendly,” said Braniff.

“That club will just get better and better as you could tell it is a rich place.

“With the club officials and fans, we maybe had 15 or so in the stands with the Qarabag crowd creating a great atmosphere.

“We had already enjoyed a big result in the previous round to beat Skonto.”

Richard Lecky - Portadown’s all-time leading scorer in European football - was on the scoresheet against Skonto at Shamrock Park then increased his tally to seal a sole success on foreign soil and secure passage towards the Qarabag test.

“The Skonto result was massive and we defended like warriors in Latvia to protect the 1-0 lead,” said Braniff.

“We always went out to give it our best shot in Europe and, personally, I loved those games as it suited my style of football.

“I’ve played for Portadown, Glenavon and Ballymena United in Europe and loved every minute, even if we were underdogs.

“You want to go up against the best possible opposition and I craved that challenge.

“It is always special representing your club in Europe, the whole experience of course but especially on the pitch.”