GAA Football

Star of the County Down: Goalkeeper Shane Harrison hoping to net Irish Cup run with north Belfast side

Twelve months on from being between the sticks for Down, Shane Harrison is gearing up for another big challenge as part of the Crumlin Star side that faces big-spending Larne in the Irish Cup. Neil Loughran talks to the Annalong man…

Shane Harrison was signed up by Crumlin Star for the rest of the season following an unfortunate injury to regular goalkeeper Ciaran McNeill in early December. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

THIS time a year ago Shane Harrison was Down’s number one goalkeeper as the Mournemen prepared for a National League date with Cork, but 12 months down the line his Star is on the rise in another code.

Today Harrison will be part of the Crumlin Star squad that travels to the home of Danske Bank Premiership-bound Larne in the sixth round of the Irish Cup.

Backed by benefactor Kenny Bruce’s millions, the Inver Reds have splashed the cash in a bid to secure a long-awaited return to the top flight.

Sitting 16 points clear at the top of the Bluefin Sport Championship after 23 games, it is safe to say that objective has been achieved.

An Irish Cup run would be the icing on the cake for Tiernan Lynch’s men, but Larne are not the only ones dreaming big.

Unbeaten in their eight league games played this season, it would be a major surprise if Crumlin Star don’t go on to land a third Amateur League Premier Division title on the spin.

Yet, had things worked out differently, Harrison could easily have been watching this journey from afar.

Initially signed on a short-term contract at the start of the season to cover for suspended number one Ciaran McNeill, the 25-year-old from Annalong returned to home club Mourne Rovers, where older brother and current Down star Connaire is among the management team.

But when his phone rang late one wintry afternoon, not long after his former team-mates had defeated 1st Bangor, Harrison had a fair idea what was coming.

“I told them at the start of the season I’d sign for them and play the first couple of games; give them a pull-out basically.

“I signed back for Mourne Rovers when Ciaran came back in, but then one Saturday I got a phone call from [Crumlin Star manager] Paul Trainor and I just knew something was wrong.

“I answered the phone and the first thing he said was ‘do you want to come and win a Border Cup?’”

That was on December 8, the Border Cup final was 18 days later.

McNeill had suffered a ruptured ACL and was out for the rest of the season at least. For Harrison, there was barely time to think.

He played one league game before finding himself between the sticks against Ballynahinch Olympic the day after St Stephen’s Day as Crumlin Star went for a second Border triumph in-a-row, and a fourth in eight years.

It went to extra-time and penalties but, when all was said and done, the cup was boarding the bus bound for the Cliftonville Road.

“You really have to feel for Ciaran, it’s a real nasty one.

“The timing of the injury wasn’t really fair on him because he played the whole of the Border Cup right the way through, got man-of-the-match in the semi-final and then missed the final. He played a massive part in Crumlin Star winning that trophy, so coming in and filling his shoes was a big deal.

“It’s mad how it all worked out. Christmas had to be put on hold but sure it’s all worth it when you go home with a cup like that. I was able to enjoy Connaire’s wedding [on New Year’s Eve] and then we had the Irish Cup game against Loughgall a few days after that…”

The Championship outfit were simply blown away, beaten 4-1 on their home pitch. It is for this reason that, despite all the focus on heavy favourites Larne, confidence is high that another upset could be on the cards.

“Against Loughgall it was just one of those days where everything went right for us.

“Teams can have money, but whenever they’re putting the performances in and getting results every week, that’s when you take notice. Larne are a mile clear at the top of the Championship but, at the same time, we still fancy our chances.

“I know it’s maybe weird to say that when they’ve been so dominant this season, but it’s different when you have a team with a big spirit that’s willing to fight for each other.

“It’s hard to explain it… there’s just such a never-say-die attitude among the players here. You’re never, ever out of the game. Two weeks ago we played Rathfriland in the Intermediate Cup and it went to extra-time. They went 1-0 up and with two minutes left we scored two goals to win that game.

“The week before we were a goal down in the 90th minute and scored two goals in injury-time to win; it’s just the way the players are. It’s a real tight group, everybody just puts the work in.

“It’s different from any team I’ve been to. The way it’s run, from the committee down, it’s just different class. Everything runs like clockwork.”

Shane Harrison's older brother Connaire lead the line for Down, and was nominated for an Allstar award in 2017

Although he is loving life in north Belfast at the moment, Harrison admits a possible return to county colours is always there at the back of his mind.

He spoke to Benny Coulter, part of Paddy Tally’s backroom team, not long after the Galbally man had been appointed but opted to take some time away.

The Glasdrumman clubman started the first two games in Down’s ultimately ill-fated Division Two campaign before being sidelined with kidney stones. Marc Reid seized his chance and Eamonn Burns kept faith with the Bryansford stopper.

Following their disappointing Ulster exit to Donegal, however, Harrison was brought back into the fold for the All-Ireland Qualifier clash with Cavan.

Unfortunately though, things didn’t go to plan for him or the Mournemen in what turned out to be Burns’s last stand.

With the game in the balance early in the second half, it swung in the Breffni County’s favour when a long-range attempted point from Gearoid McKiernan dropped short – and dropped over Harrison’s head into the net.

Late opportunities to snatch victory were passed up as the Mournemen slipped out the exit door but, despite the obvious disappointment, Harrison remains philosophical about that unfortunate incident.

“It was just a loss of concentration more than anything.

“If you make a mistake all eyes are on you and everything comes back to you – I never watched the game back, you just have to get on with it.

“That would’ve been a first time for me, something like that happening, but at the end of the day it could happen to anyone. No-one really talked about it after or anything, but I sort of felt bad for the likes of Peter Turley and fellas like that, boys who are now retired and who never got the chance to have that run towards the Super 8s.

“At the end of the day we still could’ve won that game. Och it happens, it happens…”

Harrison doesn’t want that walk from the field at Kingspan Breffni Park to be his last act in the county jersey, and is hopeful that some day soon he will rejoin his big brother in the red and black.

“After something like that, or even just in general, you would always love the chance to go back and play again. Playing for Down’s a big deal, especially for us being from such a small club too.

“Everyone always asks what you prefer, Gaelic or soccer… in Gaelic you’re more involved but, I don’t know, it’s much of a muchness really. I just enjoy playing football.

“Whenever you’re involved with the likes of the county, there’s bigger pressure, more eyes on you. It’s good – you have to live off that pressure. But the likes of this game against Larne in the Irish Cup, big crowd, that’s the days you just love getting out and playing.”

And, today at least, Crumlin Star and a possible Irish Cup quarter-final spot is all that matters.

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