Smash and grab raid for Ballycran as Conor Woods goal sinks Portaferry in Down decider
Morgan Fuels Down Senior Hurling Championship final: St Joseph’s, Ballycran 2-13 St Patrick’s, Portaferry 1-14
HOWLS of joy carried across Mitchel Park when Conor Woods shook the Portaferry net four minutes into added time, the classy forward applying the most dramatic of finishing touches as Ballycran pulled off a remarkable smash and grab raid to land a first county title since 2015.
They didn’t score at all from the 11th minute until half-time, shot a succession of wides after the break and trailed from the 20th minute until well into added time. There was little to suggest this was going to be Ballycran’s day.
But when referee Colin Murray awarded a close-range free against Portaferry goalkeeper Karol Keating who, seconds earlier, had spectacularly denied Cormac McAllister a second goal of the day, Ballycran’s chance arrived.
Trailing by two after gradually clawing back a deficit that had once been seven, and in the final minute of the four allocated for added time, the only decision Woods had to make was where he wanted to put it.
“I just said to him ‘look Conor, we might not get another chance, so just go for it’,” said Crans boss Gary Savage. “I turned my back and never even looked at it...”
But as he watched the crowd burst forward, familiar faces everywhere punching the air, there was no longer any doubt that this was going to be Ballycran’s day after all.
Woods slammed the sliothar low to the right of the ’keeper, somehow avoiding the Portaferry bodies on the line. And when Woods, carrying a nasty-looking finger injury from before half-time, sent over a point less than a minute later to extend their lead to two with the clock ticking down, the ’Crans support was in dreamland.
“We were gone, we didn’t play well at all,” said Savage, part of the last Ballycran team to conquer Ulster 25 years ago, and who leads his men into battle against reigning provincial champions Slaughtneil on October 28.
“We trained hard this year, fair play to the boys, they hardly missed a training session, any of them, and it showed there at the end when they dug in. Everybody doubted that they could do that, but today they did.
“This team can play better than they played today. They’re better hurlers than that, and this will improve them even more.”
It was impossible not to feel sympathy for Portaferry. Defeated finalists last year too, they had been the better team for long periods. That late, late Woods free swung the game, and Portaferry boss Noel Sands couldn’t hide his anger after the game.
“We’re bitterly disappointed,” he said.
“The refereeing has a lot to answer for. How you get a 21 yard free when the ’keeper’s blatantly pushed to the ground and then straight over the top of…
“It was a throw-in ball on the 21 yard line but, at the end of the day, we had possession of the ball and we should’ve got rid of it. Fair play to Ballycran, they came back at us, but it’s not an easy one to take.
“Our guys left everything on the field and they should’ve come away victors today.”
With a huge wind at their backs, it was the Ports who had stolen a march at the break, although Ballycran were the first to settle.
They adapted well to the trying conditions, their short, sharp passing game causing problems for Portaferry early on. And when McAllister lashed to the net to put them 1-2 to 0-2 ahead with 11 minutes on the clock, Ballycran looked in control.
But they were architects of their own downfall at times as some poor tackling gifted Portaferry plenty of opportunities, and the dead-eyed Ronan Blair was in no mood to pass them up, sending just one wide all afternoon.
Blair also gobbled up the one chance that came his way in front of goal, lashing beyond Stephen Keith as Portaferry took control, with a point from sub Tom Murray sending them in 1-9 to 1-2 ahead at the break.
Ballycran were a bit panicky in front of the posts as they attempted to close the gap, registering three poor wides in the opening 10 minutes after the restart. With the driving runs of Eoghan Sands doing damage, and the experienced Paul Braniff sprung from the bench, the Ports looked well placed to bury the memories of last year’s Down decider.
But back came Ballycran, chipping away at the lead, with Woods pulling the strings.
And there is nobody else they would have wanted standing over that sliothar when the referee pressed the whistle to his lips deep into added time. Do or die, stick or twist, call it what you like, Woods kept his cool when all around were losing theirs to ensure it is Ballycran who march on into Ulster.
Ballycran: S Keith; M Hughes, P Flynn, S Ennis; M Taylor, P Hughes, B Nicholson; S Nicholson (0-2), P Savage (0-1); C McAllister (1-0), C Woods (1-3), L Savage (0-1); J Coyle (0-1), C McManus (0-4, frees), N Breen. Subs: A Bell for Woods (26, reversed 27), G Hughes (0-1) for Breen (42), A Bell for Taylor (51), D Ennis for S Keith (67)
Yellow cards: S Ennis (16)
Portaferry: K Keating; N White, C O’Neill, D Mallon; M Conlan (0-1), C Taggart, C O’Prey (0-1, 65); C Fay, C Mageean (0-1); A O’Prey, K McGarry, B Trainor; R Blair (1-8, 0-8 frees), E Sands (0-1), D Sands. Subs: T Murray (0-1) for Fay (20), N Fitzsimmons (0-1) for Trainor (36), P Braniff for McGarry (44), C Fay for A O’Prey (56)
Red cards: N Fitzsimmons (67)
Referee: C Murray (Darragh Cross)