Ballycran quietly confident as Down SHC gets underway

Manager Michael Ennis was part of the last Ballycran side that won the Down SHC two years ago.
Manager Michael Ennis was part of the last Ballycran side that won the Down SHC two years ago. Manager Michael Ennis was part of the last Ballycran side that won the Down SHC two years ago.

The Ards peninsula is one of those rare pockets where hurling thrives against the odds. Outsiders don’t really get it. The rivalry runs as deep as the cuts and gashes that are left behind from the clash of the ash. 

Reigning champions Portaferry will likely have a few eyes in the stand in Ballygalget come 3pm Sunday. Former Ballycran manager Jamie Fowler won’t be too far away from them, last year’s Down SHC final defeat to ‘Ferry still stinging. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer as they say.

A late Ronan Blair penalty was the undoing of Fowler’s charges. That proved to be the end of his reign. No one wants to leave off the back of a defeat, but such is life. As manager, it can be easy to forget that life spans beyond the playing field. 

“It’s every day”, is how he describes the commitment of club management. In the past twelve months he’s sold one house and bought another. These things require the kind of time management doesn’t afford you. And yet he admits he still misses it.

And so Michael Ennis steps in to continue the tradition along the peninsula. Ballycran born and bred. A Down SHC title in 2021 was to be his last involvement after a 15-year playing career, and now he’s back. You can’t keep a good man down.

He’s one of a long line of club managers countrywide that acknowledge the benefits of the league, while also agonising over its conclusion, and hoping to God that Championship is just around the corner. 

Well, good news. It is.

“We took a bit of a break a few weeks back to refocus for Championship. We’ve been training relatively well.

“Ballygalget are a strong up and coming outfit. We know a lot about them and they know a lot about us.

“They managed to beat us in the league (Antrim league), so we know what we’re up against.”

‘Galget’s victory over Ennis’ men was perhaps a surprise, but not a shock. The nature of their second half performance was particularly impressive, however, having been six down at the break.

The strength of Down club hurling is reflected in the interdependent relationship they have established with the Antrim league. Indeed, Ballycran were one of three Mourne teams to finish in the top half of their neighbours’ competition. 

Overall, Ennis was pleased with how his side fared:

“By and large we were happy. We were very happy with a top two or three finish, and it was also great to get a lot of lads a first taste of senior hurling.”

Ballygalget and Championship provides a different challenge altogether, and a shot at revenge for Ballycran after that league defeat. Their rivals will be confident of another upset however, with a perceived young team now having four or five years senior hurling under their belt.

Although the final defeat still stings for Ballycran, their manager feels his absence for that 2022 campaign benefits the squad. That kind of disappointment has to be parked quickly at this level, with a high calibre of opposition waiting in the wings.

The new six-team format of the Down SHC has got the seal of approval in Ennis’ eyes, amidst what he described as “mixed reviews”. Two teams will be relegated to the Intermediate ranks, with promoted Liatroim expected to give a good account of themselves off the back of an Ulster IHC title last year.

They are at home to Bredagh at 5pm on Sunday, with former Ballycran boss Fowler especially wary of Conor McCrickard, a talented dual player. One of three McCrickard’s, Conor won a Munster SFC title with St Finbarr’s in Cork after relocating due to his academic studies.

Manager Colly Murphy, originally from Antrim, has taken his two sons with him to the Fontenoys. Opponents Bredagh are more seasoned campaigners at this level, but will be without Donal Hughes.

Elsewhere, Newry Shamrocks will be up against it on Monday, as the likely relegation favourites enter the lion’s den with a trip to reigning champions Portaferry. Ronan Blair will likely be to the fore again, with the freetaker notching an impressive 1-8 in the county final last year.