AIB Ulster SHC semi-final: St Patrick’s, Portaferry (Down) v Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) (tomorrow, Corrigan Park, 1.30pm)
IT was clear what it meant to Portaferry as they celebrated defeating familiar foes Ballycran to clinch the county crown at a sodden Pairc Esler six weeks ago.
Wisps of blue and yellow smoke swept by from flares let off in the stand, young and old oblivious to the elements as they flooded the field to rejoice when captain Conor Mageean hoisted the Jeremiah McVeigh Cup aloft.
Having lost out to Ballycran in the dying embers of extra-time the previous year, this one meant a bit more. The conditions dictated that it would be a dogfight and, even with best laid plans chucked out the window, Portaferry still prevailed.
For today’s opponents Slaughtneil, it was more a case of business as usual.
Back on September 25 Michael McShane’s men successfully took the sting out of Kevin Lynch’s to claim a 10th straight county title. Of the starting 15, Chrissy McKaigue and Sé McGuigan have been involved in every one – with the rest of the current crew well versed in winning a decade down the line.
Their story has been one of evolution and steady progress. With authority asserted in Derry, Slaughtneil slowly but surely got to grips with the provincial stage and, since the breakthrough came, it has barely been let go.
Ulster champions in four of the last five years, and still knocking on the door to force a way into the All-Ireland frame, they remain the acid test for all others harbouring aspirations to grasp the Four Seasons Cup.
It is this experience and incredible know-how accrued throughout a golden period that presents the biggest problem for Portaferry.
Ballycran were the last Ulster side to upset the applecart, taking advantage of wearied legs after years on the road on both hurling and football fronts to send Slaughtneil scuttling out the exit door at the semi-final stage in 2018.
A harsh lesson was learned. Since then, nobody has got close – not even a Dunloy side who have reigned supreme in Antrim, and lie in wait for tomorrow’s winners when the December 4 final rolls around.
After winning the Down title during the Covid-hit campaign of 2020, Portaferry were denied a crack at the Emmet’s. When Ballycran were downed in Newry, a smile flashed across the face of stalwart Caolan Taggart – one of the survivors from the club’s 2014 Ulster-winning campaign - knowing the prospect of finally going toe-to-toe with Slaughtneil would be realised.
But it is a major step-up for Karol Keating’s men – one made all the more difficult by the absence of key forward Eoghan Sands, who has relocated abroad since the county crown was claimed. His experience, doggedness and eye for a score would be missed by most sides.
On a positive note, the red card shown to Mageean early in the second half that day was subsequently overturned so he is free to line out at Corrigan Park. The question remains, however, whether Portaferry have the firepower to penetrate a stubborn Slaughtneil rearguard.
Their pace and power in attack was evident even in the driving rain at Pairc Esler, though they will need to be much more decisive after passing up a host of goalscoring opportunities. That said, the conditions forced them to go goal-hunting on occasion, rather than pot-shotting into a howling wind.
Padraig Doran could come in for Eoghan Sands, whose brother Daithi is likely to find himself shackled by either Paul McNeill or Shane McGuigan. McNeill impressed on Waterford hotshot Dessie Hutchinson when Slaughtneil fell to eventual All-Ireland champions Ballygunner back in January, and could be handed the task of quelling Portaferry’s danger man.
Ronan Blair was on top form against Ballycran, with his late penalty swinging the balance firmly in their favour. He could have Sean Cassidy for company tomorrow, with Karl McKaigue possibly picking up talented teenager Tom McGrattan.
If Slaughtneil manage to shut down that trio’s influence, they’re halfway there.
At the other end, Portaferry will have their hands full with a big, strong Slaughtneil forward line – and Keating could face a bit of a quandary where Brendan Rogers is concerned.
Matt Conlan might be expected to battle it out with Chrissy McKaigue around the middle, but it would be no surprise if his pace and defensive nous was utilised to try and limit the deadly Derry star’s influence.
Caolan Taggart could also come into the Rogers equation too, depending on how Portaferry choose to play it, with Darragh Mallon likely to follow Brian Cassidy.
Edge some of those battles and Portaferry will give themselves a great shout of causing a major upset. But with a running game so suited to winter hurling, and players across the field who have been there and done it all at this level, Slaughtneil still look a cut above and should set up another showdown with Dunloy.