Michael Gault provided Portadown’s title ambitions with a major boost by smashing home a last-gasp winner on 90 minutes to see off spirited Institute by 2-1 at Shamrock Park.
The Ports enjoyed the perfect start by taking the lead inside the opening two minutes.
A well-worked throw-in routine was launched from the left wing by Darren Murray into the Institute penalty area towards Garry Breen. However, Gault nipped in from the blind side to gain a decisive flick that Institute struggled to clear and Sean Mackle raced in to guide home a firm shot.
Institute’s attempts to close the gap featured a break along the left that ended with Mark Forker lifting the ball goalwards but Chris Ramsey stepping in to clear from the heart of the box.
Mackle came close to increasing his personal tally with a speculative shot from distance that goalkeeper Martin Gallagher fumbled, allowing the ball to slip over the line for a corner-kick.
Ross Redman and Robert Garrett combined to create space, with the latter’s backheel releasing the former to drill a cross that just evaded the head of Murray.
A swift break left Institute exposed but Portadown failed to take advantage of the opening then Garrett’s deflected effort dropped inside the area for Mark McAllister but the snapshot dropped wide of the mark.
Institute ended the half with a looping Aaron Walsh attempt that curled from right to left but failed to test David Miskelly between the posts.
It then proved the turn of the away side to grab a goal moments into the start of the half - with Stephen Curry on target inside the first two minutes after the half-time whistle.
Walsh’s free-kick dropped to the edge of the area and Curry’s initial effort was blocked, with the Institute player collecting the loose ball then working the space to drill a shot past a group of Ports players and Miskelly.
Graham Crowne’s perfectly-timed sliding challenge inside the box prevented Murray from gaining a clear sight of goal.
Portadown’s push towards regaining control featured last-gasp defending by Institute to stop progress by Peter McMahon and Chris Casement.
Gault then cleared the crossbar with a firm header off Redman’s corner-kick.
The Ports handed a debut off the substitutes’ bench to recent signing Paul McElroy in a bid to inject some attacking drive into the closing stages.
Gallagher displayed strong hands to push away a testing free-kick drive by Casement from a tight angle then Breen’s back-post header failed to find the target from a great position.
However, Portadown had Miskelly to thank for a smart save when Institute substitute Matty Young raced clear of the offside trap but could not find a path past the home goalkeeper.
McElroy, who looked bright on his debut, had a deflected shot then fall for McAllister but the in-form striker dragged his effort wide.
An Institute break late on led to Curry crossing from the right and the unmarked Cormac Burke opted for an acrobatic effort that lacked direction.
The game, however, featured one late dramatic twist thanks to a Gault goal that keeps the Ports within sight of Crusaders and Linfield.
PORTADOWN: David Miskelly, Chris Casement, Ross Redman, Chris Ramsey, Garry Breen, Peter McMahon, Sean Mackle, Darren Murray, Mark McAllister, Michael Gault, Robert Garrett. Subs: Billy Brennan, Tim Mouncey (on for Mackle, 85 mins), Paul McElroy (on for McMahon, 67 mins), Gary Twigg (on for Murray, 65 mins), Shea Conaty.
INSTITUTE: Martin Gallagher, Graham Crowne, Paddy McLaughlin, Stephen O’Donnell, Graeme Taylor, Aaron Walsh, Dwayne McManus, Mark Forker, Cormac Burke, Robbie Hume, Stephen Curry. Subs: Caolan Mulcahy, Matty Young (on for Hume, 81 mins), Jordan Thompson, Declan McKeever, Ronan Doherty.
Referee: Tim Marshall.