Hurling and camogie

'The main thing that's similar is that nobody gave us a chance then either': Ballycran boss Gary Savage

Gary Savage celebrates after Ballycran's dramatic late Down final victory over Portaferry in Ballygalget last month. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran

GARY Savage admits he sees a couple of similarities between the Ulster-title winning Ballycran side of 25 years ago and the class of 2018 – with the most striking being how they have defied the odds to reach the final in the first place.

An all-action wing-back, Savage helped drive the Crans to their third – and last - provincial crown when they stunned Antrim champions Cushendall in the 1993 decider, goals from Kevin Blaney and Michael Braniff helping them to a 2-10 to 0-12 victory.

And Savage is now joint manager of the club as they landed a first Down championship since 2015 in the most dramatic of circumstances, a late goal from the talismanic Conor Woods sealing a Ballycran smash and grab as Portaferry lost out at the last.

The Friday night before that victory Savage had joined his former comrades to mark the 25th anniversary of that momentous success, and there are easy comparisons to be made between that year and this as they prepare to face the Ruairi Ogs again - a quarter of a century on.

“We have a good mix of youth and experience now I suppose, just as we did then,” he said.

“It was a different time and a different era, a lot has changed, but I suppose the main thing that's similar is that nobody gave us a chance then either.

“Against Cushendall at that time we would’ve come in as big underdogs, and it’s the same this weekend as well.”

It was the same just under a fortnight ago too when they took the field at Corrigan Park against Slaughtneil, holders of the Four Seasons Cup for the previous two seasons and overwhelming favourites to at least earn a final crack at completing the hat-trick.

Typical of the dogged determination displayed so far this year, though, Ballycran had other ideas.

Just as Slaughtneil had done to so many other sides during their reigning, the Crans came flying out of the blocks to stun the Derry champions, with first half goals from James Coyle and Niall Breen setting them on their way to a comprehensive win.

“We were confident going into the game, we won a few Down championship matches and that brought a lot of confidence into the team,” continued Savage.

“Getting out of Down is horrible, it really is tough, and winning the way we did in a couple of them… Conor Woods scoring a goal and a point in a minute in the final, it brings a lot of confidence to a team.

“In the past five or six matches there we’ve never given up. There’s a different attitude they have brought to it themselves, they’ve brought a whole new attitude to the game.

“Slaughtneil have been the standard bearers in hurling and football this last couple of years and you know you can’t stand off them. We just said we’re going in, man on man, and it’s up to you yourself – if you want to let the rest of your team-mates down it’s up to you.

“We told them you have to go at it 120 per cent, and that’s what they did from the word go and it stood to them at the end of the match.”

Down clubs haven’t fared too well in the years since Ballycran’s 1993 success, with only Ballygalget (1998, 2005) and Portaferry (2014) getting their hands on the Four Seasons Cup in the time between.

Savage admits it is strange that clubs from the Ards have struggled to bridge that gap more often, and believes much is down to mind over matter.

“I think it’s just confidence, really.

“A lot of those Cushendall players were probably playing with Antrim this last couple of years too, where we maybe only had two or three in with Down.

“But look, we played against them twice in the league this year it’s not like we’re going into the unknown. We know how good a side Cushendall are, but we know what we’re capable of too.”

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Hurling and camogie

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