Epic decider between Portaferry and Ballycran ends in stalemate
Morgan Fuels Down Senior Hurling Championship final: Ballycran 2-18 Portaferry 2-18
GROWN women and little children screamed and hollered - and the men roared from behind the wire every time the sloithar slipped from someone’s grasp or was planted between the posts or in the net.
Two proud parishes of the peninsula colliding.
This love affair between ash and stitched leather never felt as strong than under gorgeous sunshine in Ballygalget on a late Saturday afternoon in September.
Every yelp, every scream and roar, every sweet thud of the sloithar and the unyielding smashes of rival hurls were the sounds of living.
Hurling will never die on the peninsula. Not with this sort of passion.
Thoughts of Covid19 didn’t get beyond the green gates on Saturday as the warriors of Portaferry and Ballycran wrestled mercilessly for 80 awe-inspiring minutes for the Down Senior Hurling Championship crown – only for this memorable final to end all square.
When referee Peter Owens blew his final whistle after two periods of extra-time, everyone was able to breathe normally again.
Portaferry boss and force of nature Gary Smyth lived every second of Saturday’s final like it was his last ever hurley match.
Here was a man rampaging up and down the sideline - and yet he’d just buried his father a couple of days earlier.
Paddy Smyth, who had Alzheimher’s Disease, suffered a stroke last Friday and passed away a few days later.
“It’s been an emotional week,” the Portaferry manager said. “You just put it to the back of your mind. I never thought about the hurley much.
“But that’s what we live for. You had extra-time, 2-18 to 2-18, we are two evenly matched teams, there’s never anything between us.”
Ballycran were aiming for three-in-a-row while Portaferry were hoping to end a six-year famine.
Both sides produced schizophrenic performances.
Just as you thought one of these historic rivals would break free, the other came firing back.
Portaferry, though, will probably feel that they let the title slip through their fingers a couple of times.
After all, it was Ballycran who needed equalisers at the end of normal time and extra-time to deny Portaferry. With the last puck of normal time, the brilliant Scott Nicholson fired over to level the game 1-14 apiece.
And with just seconds remaining in extra-time and trailing by three, county ace Conor Woods lobbed his last-gasp free into the edge of the square and the ball somehow ended up in the Portaferry net.
“I think we should have blocked it out as they were needing the goal,” acknowledged Smyth.
“There were maybe 50 seconds to go and the ball hit the crossbar and came off the back of Caolan Taggart’s helmet and into the net.
“If you’d want that kind of ball to fall to anybody it is actually Caolan.”
One thing is true about Ballycran: they are moulded in the image of their manager Gary Savage.
In his playing days, ‘Gazza’ never knew when he was beaten – and Ballycran had that same quality on Saturday.
They started this final better than favourites Portaferry but a defensive mix-up allowed the mercurial Daithi Sands to pounce for the first major of the day just before the interval.
By half-time 'Cran’s commanding lead had been cut to two points [1-9 to 1-7] after full-forward Colum McManus helped Conor Woods’ long free into the net midway through the opening half.
But in the early stages of the second half, the Ballycran defence had no answer to the movement of Daithi Sands.
By the 44th minute a Padraig Doran free put Portaferry 1-12 to 1-9 in front. But, to their eternal credit and with exceptional bravery, Ballycran rattled off the next four points with midfielders Scott Nicholson and Phelim Savage leading the charge.
And just as the men in black and amber looked like pulling away, back came Portaferry with a pair of Doran frees edging them in front again before Scott Nicholson retrieved the game for Ballycran with a cool equaliser despite being hounded by a pack of Portaferry men.
Ballycran outscored their rivals 0-4 to 0-1 in the opening exchanges of the first period of extra-time with substitute Christopher Egan getting his name on the score-sheet but Portaferry somehow found another spurt of energy with Doran, Conor O’Prey and Niall Fitzsimmons splitting their opponents' posts.
And after a quiet spell, Daithi Sands sprung into life again, hammering the ball into the Ballycran net from a tight angle with three minutes remaining.
But there was still time for one more dramatic swing of the championship pendulum when Woods’ hopeful lob into the danger area hit the crossbar and the back of Taggart’s helmet and landed into the net to level things up.
“You always think you’re gone when you’re three points down with the last puck of the match,” said ‘Cran boss Gary Savage.
“Conor took a chance, just put it in there, and lucky enough it went in. But I thought it would have been harsh on us if we’d lost as a lot of their scores were frees and we were scoring from play. I suppose everyone can make their own mind up.
“We never gave up… For some reason everybody had written us off before this final. We had an indifferent campaign but the character shone through in the end.”
Try getting a ticket for this replay. If your heart can take it...
Ballycran: S Keith; M Hughes, S Ennis, G Hughes; B Nicholson, M Ennis (0-1), P Hughes; S Nicholson (0-5, 0-3 frees), P Savage (0-4); L Savage, C Woods (1-0, free), B Arthurs; J Coyle (0-3, 0-1 free), C McManus (1-2), S Martin (0-2) Subs: A Dorrian for P Hughes (44), C Egan (0-1) for B Arthurs (46), N Breen for J Coyle (55), C Dorrian for N Breen (67), J Coyle for C Dorrian (73)
Yellow card: P Hughes (34)
Portaferry: P McNally; D Mallon, C Taggart, T Murray; B Trainor, C O’Neill, C Smyth; M Conlan, E Sands; C Faye (0-2), C Mageean (0-1), A O’Prey; P Doran (0-10 frees), D Sands (2-2), C O’Prey (0-2 frees) Subs: N Milligan for A O’Prey (18), R Smyth T Murray (60), S Conlan for C O’Neill (65), N Fitzsimmons (0-1) for E Sands (65), R Blair for P Doran (70)
Yellow card: M Conlan (80)
Referee: Peter Owens