PORTAFERRY are set to embark on their first Ulster Senior Hurling Championship campaign since winning the competition in 2014 – and challenges don’t come much bigger than their semi-final opponents Sleacht Néill, whom they face on Sunday at Corrigan Park.
They missed out on an opportunity to test themselves on the provincial stage two years ago as the Ulster Hurling Championships were cancelled due to Covid-19, and their manager Karol Keating – goalkeeper in their 2014 triumph – says the Portaferry players are relishing the challenge that lays in front of them.
“I wasn’t involved in 2020, but when you win your county title, you feel that you’ve earned the right to go and represent your county in Ulster.
“It was a bit disappointing, so the lads are excited to have this opportunity. We haven’t been on this stage since we won the Ulser Championship since 2014, it’s a long time for a club like Portaferry.”
Portaferry, who won the Down final with a 1-12 to 0-13 victory over holders Ballycran, can still call upon some of the players who featured back in 2014, including Caolan Taggart, Eoghan Sands, Matthew Conlan and Connor Mageean.
But they also have a number of talented teenage players who have made an immediate impact, including goalkeeper Pearse Smyth and Tom McGrattan, both of whom won All-Stars for their performances with Mageean Cup champions St Patrick’s Grammar School.
Their careers are only getting started but they’re already making their mark and Portaferry came out on top of the Antrim Leagues earlier in the season – fending off top Saffron clubs like Cushendall and Dunloy.
“It wasn’t something we set out to do, the Antrim leagues are all about survival to be honest,” said Keating.
“I played in it myself and it’s one of the most competitive leagues in the country, you have the Dunloys, Cushendalls, Loughgiels, Ballycastle and the Belfast clubs so it’s very competitive.
“We were fortunate, we got the opportunity to blood new players, we used 36 players in total throughout the Antrim League campaign which is a credit to the club’s resources.
“The players were happy to compete for places and wanted a place in the team so it worked out well for us. Our county players also returned a bit earlier than some of the Antrim hurlers which benefited us as well. It was great to win but we need a bit of luck as well. We hadn’t won it in 20 years so we’ll take it.”
To be the best, you have to beat the best and Sleacht Néill have won four of the last five Ulster Senior Hurling titles. They defeated Down opponents in Ballycran in last year’s decider by 1-14 to 0-10, pulling away after a sublime goal from dual star Brendan Rogers. The Derry side look as formidable as ever so it’s a massive challenge for Portaferry.
Keating said: “I’ve been to a lot of their games over the last couple of years, they’re an absolute credit for what they’ve achieved.
“I went to Newry and watched them against Ballyhale Shamrocks, I was at the Ballycran match last year and I’ve been to Parnell Park in the past just to watch them as a hurling fan.
“Ballycran were a bit more seasoned than us last year and they’d a good shot at the title, but Sleacht Néill got their goal and that won the game for them.
“Ballycran tried to chase the game and things opened up for Sleacht Néill after their goal, their experience kicked in.
“We’ve watched their games and you have to give credit where credit is due, they’re a credit to Derry and Ulster GAA as a dual club and they deserve all the credit they can get.
“They deserve to be going in a massive favourites.”