Conor Woods: Ballycran undaunted by Slaughtneil challenge
Morgan Fuels Down Senior Hurling Championship
LAST Friday night, two days before the Down final, the great and the good of Ballycran gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the club’s last Ulster championship success, and toast the men who delivered it.
Gary Savage - joint-manager of the current crop alongside Gary Gordon - was there, hoping Friday was only the start of a weekend that would live long in the memory.
Conor Woods was there too. His connection with the great team of ’93 runs deep, even though it came long before he would wear the famous black and amber stripes with such distinction.
Woods was only a child when he watched father Dermot hoist aloft the Four Seasons Cup after the ’Crans stunned Cushendall to land the provincial crown. Twenty-five years on, every little detail of that day was talked over last Friday.
“I was at it on Friday evening, my dad was captain of that team. You always feel like he has one up on you,” smiles Woods. “He has more championships, an Ulster medal. You’re always trying to get to where he got to.”
He may not have an Ulster medal yet, but on Sunday Woods went some way to cementing his own legendary status on the peninsula by scoring a remarkable 1-1 deep in added time to sink Portaferry.
Woods flashed home a hotly-contested 21-metre free in the 64th minute to edge Ballycran into the lead for the first time since just after the quarter hour mark. There was nothing else in his mind as he stood over the sliothar, watching the Portaferry bodies on the line.
“I knew rightly we needed a goal, we needed something to lift us so I had to go for it,” he said.
“And see once you see it hit the net, there’s no better feeling. You’re hitting those frees all through the year – sometimes they don’t go in, sometimes they do go in, it’s all about the luck of the draw.
“There was a bit of rain came before the end so I was thinking to myself I’m going to try and skid it off the ground, but it didn’t even hit the ground, it just went straight on. It never normally works out like that but thankfully it did.”
Finger bloodied and bandaged from early on ¬– “it’s bust, absolutely bust; the nail and all’s off it” - he stood with friends and family as captain Michael Hughes delivered the victory speech outside the Ballygalget clubhouse on Sunday afternoon.
The overriding emotion was relief, mainly because they had trailed for so long before finally edging their noses in front, but also because of the memories of previous Down deciders when he and his team-mates have headed out the gate empty-handed.
“See a final like that there, it’s very difficult because both teams are up for it.
“Sometimes it starts to creep into your head too that we’ve been beat in a couple of finals here and there, and you start thinking ‘is this going to be the same again?’ You maybe do get a bit nervous.
“When they got the score to go three ahead again [heading into added time] you were thinking ‘we’re running out of chances here’, but lucky enough we came back. We weren’t at our best, but we stuck at it.”
The celebrations that started on Friday night got back under way on Sunday, but attention will soon turn to the challenge that lies ahead in less than four weeks.
For the last two years Slaughtneil have been the team to beat in Ulster, and Woods is under no illusions about the size of the challenge Ballycran face on October 28.
Yet, as the class of ’93 proved 25 years ago, it can be done.
“We find even playing in the Antrim league, we’re able to compete with the top four teams in Antrim there. You’d fancy your chances against any of the Derry teams, though we know Slaughtneil are probably a level ahead.
“It’ll be a step up again. There’s a few boys there who are at the age where they’re coming towards the end of the careers, and they want to give it a go here as well.”