Hurling & Camogie

Blair on the spot as Portaferry claim Down crown

The Portaferry players celebrate with the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup after yesterday's Down SHC final win over Ballycran in Newry. Picture by Philip Walsh
The Portaferry players celebrate with the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup after yesterday's Down SHC final win over Ballycran in Newry. Picture by Philip Walsh The Portaferry players celebrate with the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup after yesterday's Down SHC final win over Ballycran in Newry. Picture by Philip Walsh

Morgan Fuels Down SHC final: St Joseph’s, Ballycran 0-13 St Patrick’s, Portaferry 1-12

PORTAFERRY banished the ghosts of last year’s gut-wrenching county final defeat as they battled back to wrestle the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup away from Ballycran at a sodden Pairc Esler yesterday.

The Ports hadn’t forgotten that long, empty-handed trip home to the Ards after Ballycran found a second wind in the dying embers of extra-time, and that pain propelled them across the line just when it looked like they might suffer a similar fate.

Trailing by two in a game where the awful conditions ensured a premium on every point, and down to 14 men following the dismissal of captain Conor Mageean earlier in the half, it looked ominous heading towards the last.

But back they came – with the excellent Ronan Blair remaining calm in the middle of the storm. He sent over two frees to tie it up and, when substitute Conor Fay was dragged down in the square three minutes from time, Portaferry had the golden opportunity they craved.

After 18-year-old goalkeeper Pearse Smyth had looked set to face off against opposite number Stephen Keith, Blair was eventually handed the responsibility instead. He knew the measure of the man he was taking on.

Just under two years ago Keith saved three penalties at the same end of the Newry ground when Down overcame Offaly in a dramatic Christy Ring Cup semi-final penalty shootout. Portaferry manager Karol Keating - a club stalwart between the sticks for many years, including when they were crowned kings of Ulster eight years ago - had watched that footage back, just in case.

“We practiced penalties during the week as well, did a bit of wee bit of homework on Stephen Keith, who’s a great shot-stopper,” said Keating.

“But you need a bit of luck too.”

Blair waited patiently for a bit of pushing and shoving behind him to end before burying the sliothar low to Keith’s right, leaving the Ballycran ’keeper rooted to the spot.

Portaferry would not be denied from there, and it was fitting that Blair should have the last word too, pumping his fist as a free in the fourth minute of added time cut through the wind and sailed over the black spot.

“There’s always pressure on Portaferry teams,” said Keating as he stood back and watched his team head up the steps of the stand in Newry.

“John Convery, our former captain, once said that everybody’s an expert when it comes to the Portaferry senior job – everybody can tell you what to do and what not to do. The local bar’s famous for it.

“But look, the lads have put in a hell of a lot of work, same as Ballycran. We felt we left it behind us last year. Ballycran deservedly won it on the day but we felt we left it behind us, and it was a long drive home.

“This time we’re delighted, and relieved, to get over the line.”

And in the beginning it looked as though Portaferry might just make it an easy enough afternoon for themselves, bursting into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead after 16 minutes, with two goal chances also passed up during that period.

At times the Ports were guilty of overplaying but, given the swirling wind and torrential rain, it is maybe harsh to lay too much blame for wanting to get as close to the target as possible.

Ballycran, though, were always going to get a foothold at some stage. Having lacked the sharpness and intensity of their opponents during those early stages, gradually they got to the pace of the game and began to win breaks and battles across the field.

A lovely Liam Savage point made it 0-5 apiece, and they finished the half strongly to lead by two, 0-9 to 0-7, at the break.

Portaferry runner Ciara Mageean was presented to the crowd at half-time, offering some words of encouragement to her club-mates. But when her cousin Conor saw red for striking Brad Watson in the 43rd minute, it looked as though history could repeat itself.

The final quarter turned into an arm wrestle and, with Ballycran unable to make their numerical advantage pay, Portaferry began to turn the screw - pulling level before eventually pulling away, Ronan Blair the hero on a dog of a day when a few demons were exorcised.

With the trophy at the head of the bus, and an Ulster semi-final crack at Slaughtneil in Corrigan Park on November 20, that journey home will have been a bit easier this time around.

Ballycran: S Keith; G Hughes, S Ennis, B Nicholson; B Watson, C Woods (0-1), J Clarke; M Hughes (0-1), L Savage (0-2); S Nicholson (0-6, 0-5 frees), S Martin, A Gleeson; N Breen (0-2), B Arthurs, C Egan (0-1). Subs: P Savage for Martin (43), L Boyd for B Nicholson (48), P Hughes for Clarke (56), C McAlister for Gleeson (60)

Portaferry: P Smyth; D Mallon, T Murray, R Smyth; B Trainor, C Taggart, C Smyth; M Conlan, S Conlan; C Mageean (0-1), C O’Prey, E Sands; R Blair (1-9, 1-0 penalty, 0-6 frees), T McGrattan (0-1), D Sands (0-1). F Turpin (37), C Fay for O’Prey (48), N Milligan for McGrattan (60+2)

Yellow cards: D Mallon (27), C Smyth (60)

Red card: C Mageean (43)

Referee: P Owens (Liatroim)