Portadown and Carrick Rangers go head-to-head for play-off shot at return to senior stage
Portadown manager Matthew Tipton has challenged his players to embrace the opportunity to define the club’s future tonight in Carrick.
Victory in the Bluefin Sport Championship pre-play-off would put the Ports two steps away from a return to senior football two seasons on from top-flight relegation.
That weight of responsibility has defined every appearance in club colours since a 2017 drop down into the Irish League’s second division.
Now Tipton wants his squad to shoulder the burden and show the belief needed to produce the one big moment to shape the final stage of the promotion push by securing a two-leg test with Ards for that coveted place in the Danske Bank Premiership.
“It’s such a massive match for the club but since securing that pre-play-off game we’ve tried to take the pressure off to a degree by instead utilising the training sessions and games to look at a few different things," said Tipton. “Hopefully, we have one final surprise when it counts but the sides know each other so well and, really, Tuesday probably comes down to which team can make the fewest number of mistakes.
“It could be about that one big moment and I have complete faith in this group of players to grab that opportunity if it arrives.
“When we signed players like Kevin Braniff and Sean Mackle it was for a game this size, not the previous regular Championship fixtures, as both players have built careers on producing when it counts.
“I look around the squad and see so many now ready for that challenge and it comes down to the trust we’ve built up and faith in each other, plus the process and hard work to get to this point.
“It’s about all those small moments and decisions falling into place so, when needed, we can deliver.
“Set-pieces and the action in both boxes obviously remain key and it is my job to deliver the right selection and tactics to the players, then those players to deliver on the pitch.
“Now is the time to stand up and grab the rewards for everything that has gone on previously.
“The campaign was about the one goal of getting promoted and this is the next step.”
An added aspect to tonight's tussle between second and third in the Championship is the fact Tipton has been charged with achieving the promotion goal that proved beyond current Carrick Rangers boss Niall Currie, the previous Ports manager.
Currie, the most decorated manager at the Irish League's second-tier level, paid the ultimate price with an exit from his hometown club last year but rejuvenated that reputation and a Carrick squad struggling from the setback of senior relegation by rebuilding, essentially from the roots, towards the rise to Championship runners-up.
"To finish 13 points clear in second place should really speak for itself but it means nothing once we come around to Tuesday night," said Currie. "It comes down to one match, Portadown have the capabilities of beating us but we also know we have the capabilities of beating Portadown.
"This must shape up as one of the closest play-offs you could have in terms of two evenly-matched teams.
"We know Portadown will bring a massive crowd so it'll be interesting to see how our players react.
"But Portadown have a young squad too and it can go both ways.
"It will be a competitive game but the main focus for us is we face a situation no-one was expecting so you go for it.
"But I'm so proud of the team, the staff, officials and everyone at the club, no matter what happens we are looking forward to next season.
“The pre-play-off is a situation we could never dream of being in as, really, when I arrived, this season was about getting a foundation in place then to hit the ground running next year.
“We are over the moon and have a great togetherness at this club so what happens cannot take away from an unbelievable season for me and everyone at this club.
“I just hope everyone appreciates what this squad of kids and senior players have put into the season, so the foundations are in place.
“We are so far ahead of schedule it’s unreal, with a number of players signed for next year so everything now is a bonus.
“We are looking to the future and looking forward to next season to go from strength-to-strength.”
Kick-off will be 7.45 at the Belfast Hotel Loughshore Arena.