Portadown supporters had to endure 83 minutes of easy-to-forget football before Tim Mouncey made his mark on Tuesday to turn a drab night into one step closer to European delight.
A summer of European commitments would provide significant boosts for the Ports in terms of finance and status.
However, a poor run of Danske Bank Premiership results leading up to Tuesday suggested Portadown had lost the momentum required to carry Ronnie McFall’s over the line in the race for a top-three finish.
Thanks to Mouncey’s looping header in the final stages against title-chasing Crusaders, Portadown now sit level on 60 points alongside Cliftonville and Glenavon entering the closing three dates.
On a night that the race for the title took a significant turn due to results for Crusaders and Linfield, the sole focus within the Shamrock Park home support centred on the push for the Europa League.
A draw appeared the outcome from a game of few scoring opportunities before a touch of class on 84 minutes when Sean Mackle whipped a cross towards the near post and the in-form Mouncey attacked the delivery at a stretch, gaining a decisive touch that left the ball looping into the far corner.
It proved Portadown’s sole significant sight of goal but, in the end, one made the difference.
Crusaders, despite the high stakes, lacked a cutting edge in the face of resolute Portadown teamwork. Crusaders had periods of pressure during the opening exchanges of each half but failed to find a path past the determined hosts.
A low cross by Richard Clarke lacked a final touch then Gavin Whyte cleared the crossbar. Jordan Owens and Timmy Adamson each attempted to turn half-chances into something of note.
The main Crusaders threat arrived moments after Portadown had grabbed the upper hand - but Jordan Lyttle and Ross Redman combined to prevent Clarke’s attempted lob from dropping home.
Peter McMahon looked sharp early on and Chris Casement delivered a number of teasing set-pieces before the introduction of Marcio Soares injected fresh drive into the home attack. Soares’ encouraging cameo proved the second successful performance by a Shamrock Park youth product - with Lyttle commanding in the heart of the backline alongside the experienced Ken Oman.
The benefits of European qualification will offer welcome short-term advantages but the progress of youth players over the past year suggests greater long-term gains.
Shea Conaty has become established in the first-team panel and Jake Richardson left supporters impressed with his senior spell at right-back. On Tuesday, Lyttle proved a player of real potential with an aggressive and assured defensive display.
PORTADOWN: David Miskelly, Chris Casement, Ross Redman, Keith O’Hara, Peter McMahon, Sean Mackle, Tim Mouncey, Ken Oman, Gary Twigg, Shea Conaty, Jordan Lyttle. Subs: Darren Murray, Marcio Soares (on for Conaty, 65 mins), Christian Stewart, Paul McElroy, Jake Richardson.