Hurling and camogie

Ulster final added incentive ahead of Down decider: Portaferry boss Gary Smyth

The Portaferry players celebrate last year's Down SHC final victory over Ballycran at Mitchel Park, Ballycran. Picture by Conor Kinahan
Neil Loughran

Morgan Fuels Down SHC

FOR the fourth year running Ballycran and Portaferry will face off for the right to bring the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup home – but the lure of an Ulster final crack at Dunloy or Slaughtneil is an added incentive for both, insists Ports boss Gary Smyth.

While those big-hitters go toe-to-toe in the semi-final in December, whoever comes out of Sunday’s Down decider in Ballygalget gets a straight pass to the Ulster final, which will be played on the weekend of January 8/9.

Portaferry emerged the right side of two classic encounters between the Ards rivals in last year’s final and, while a first county crown in six years was enough to get the party started, the absence of any provincial competition in 2020 left Smyth with a sense of unfinished business.

“That’s the only reason why I came back into the job,” he said.

“This is my third year, possibly my last chance – after a while the players need to hear a different voice. I’m no Brian Cody!

“I didn’t get the chance to take them into Ulster last year… I played many a game in Ulster but when you win a championship, you obviously want to go and test yourself at the next level.

“It’s the same teams again coming out of Derry and Antrim, and I just hope it’s the same team from Down too.”

However, while many might fancy the defending champions to come up trumps again on Sunday, Smyth believes the edge lies with a Ballycran side that has gathered momentum since losing in Portaferry on the opening day of the round-robin series.

Down forward Eoghan Sands has barely featured as a result of an ankle injury sustained in a challenge match against Antrim finalists O’Donovan Rossa and is unlikely to start against the Crans, although younger brother Daithi is expected to be fine this weekend having sat out the final game against Ballygalget with a niggle.

Barry Trainor and Conor O’Neill, though, remain doubts.

“We’ve played in the last three championship finals – it’s not like we’re going to learn anything new about each other,” said Smyth.

“The two games last year were brilliant, and Ballycran weren’t going for three in-a-row for nothing. To be honest, I don’t know how anybody makes Portaferry favourites for Sunday because we’re far from favourites. I can’t understand it.

“We’ve won one championship in six years and they’ve been in almost every final in between. That squad of players, yes they may be aging, but they’re still dangerous. Portaferry have a bulk of young fellas coming through now, but Ballycran have a load of experience as well as the likes of Stuart Martin, Phelim Savage, James Clarke.

“We hadn’t had a decent performance in the championship until we played Bredagh in Portaferry. I wasn’t happy with any of the performances bar that one – maybe the first half in Ballygalget.

“We couldn’t get a settled team, we’ve had injuries the whole way through… we still have injuries. But we’ve players to fill there, so I’m happy enough where we’re at.”

This is the second year since a new round-robin system was introduced, with Bredagh the fourth team to come into the fold alongside the peninsula neighbours.

Some were sceptical about whether the south Belfast club was ready to compete at that level but, having shown glimpses of what they were capable of last year, Danny Hughes’s men have built on that again in 2021 – registering a win over Ballygalget at Mitchel Park while running the other two close on occasion.

“To be honest, when it started a couple of years I didn’t think it would be a good thing, but Bredagh have been a breath of fresh air,” said Smyth.

“They’re a fantastic team and they’ve made it competitive – it’s not like they’re just making up the numbers, and you can see the improvement. They are the best hurling team we’ve played this year. I’ll tell you that now.

“If somebody told me Bredagh would get to the Down final next year, I wouldn’t be surprised. They’re definitely progressing, big time.”

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Hurling and camogie