Taggart taking it all in his stride

By Shaun Casey

STANDING in at corner-back as a young and fresh 19-year-old, Portaferry’s Caolan Taggart thought every year was going to be like this. Win the county title, pick up a provincial crown, and give the All-Ireland series a crack. Unfortunately, sports rarely follow such easy plans.

That was back in 2014 when Taggart and Portaferry overcame Cushendall to land the club’s first, and to date, only Ulster title after eight previously failed attempts in 1971, 1978, 1981, 1989, 1991, 1996, 2002 and 2012.

In the ten years that have followed, Portaferry haven’t got back to an Ulster final. In fact, they didn’t get their hands on the Down Championship title again until 2020, but the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup has been an almost permanent resident in Portaferry since, returning in 2022 and 2023.

“People tell you at the time to enjoy it while you can because it doesn’t come about too often but you think that it’s not going to happen to you and that you’re going to be winning Ulsters every year,” recalls an older and wiser Taggart a decade on.

“But all of a sudden you’re five, six, seven years down the line and you’ve no silverware to show for it so once you’ve tasted that success and you get a bit older, you do realise that they don’t come about all the time, and you have to push to get as many as you can.”

Portaferry have become the team to beat in the Mourne County but getting back to the heights of an Ulster title is the next target. Gerard McGrattan’s side came agonisingly close to ending their long wait for a provincial final appearance last year and should have beaten Cushendall.

With time up, Neil McManus stood over a free knowing he had to hit the back of the net for the Antrim champions to remain in the competition and he duly obliged, dragging the game to extra-time where Cushendall would emerge victorious.

Taggart will pick up a Gaelic Life All-Star award for his efforts in 2023, but it’s little consolation. “It’s great, I’ve got a few awards from Down but to get one playing for Portaferry, it’s that wee bit closer to home I suppose,” said the Portaferry defender.

“I’d always take winning over an award, they’re always nice to pick up but I’d rather an Ulster winners medal than an All-Star award.

“I think when we get back with Portaferry we’ll probably use it as a bit of fire to show that we’re up to that standard and we’ll hopefully push on then for next year.

“In 2022 whenever we played Sleacht Néill in the Ulster semi-final, it had been a good few years since we’d been there, and we didn’t do ourselves justice and a few boys then realised they had to go and get bigger and stronger.

“There was a big focus in Portaferry last year to go and do that and I think that Cushendall game was the next stepping stone.

“Cushendall are a great team and have a lot of big names in their team and we pushed them so close, we had them beat and they got a get out of jail free card.

“I think it really gives boys another push. I know Portaferry have started training already and there’s a big focus on strength and conditioning so there’ll be a big driving force later in the year to see if we can get back to that level.”

Picking up an individual gong for his on-field efforts wasn’t the only compliment that Taggart received in 2023. He was included in the Ireland panel that was chosen to take on Scotland in the hurling/shinty hybrid game that returned for the first time since 2019.

He played four years ago when Ireland were hammered out the gate by 22 points and while the class of 2023 proved too strong for their opponents, Taggart wasn’t on the field of play to impact the result.

Timing is everything in life and unfortunately the game against Scotland fell on the same weekend as the Down county final against old rivals Ballycran, with just 24 hours separating the two games.

While Taggart would have loved to pull on that green jersey in front of his home crowd in Newry, he wasn’t going to sacrifice the chance of success in the blue and yellow shirt of Portaferry.

“Me and the Portaferry management made the decision, not to step away but just not to play on the day of the game. I was still there and part of the panel, but I was never going to be on the pitch.

“It was still good to make it there but at the end of the day the club has to come first. I played on the shinty team the last time it was played but I suppose it was my first time as a more senior player.

“There was no Division One players on the team the last time and Scotland embarrassed us a bit that day but to be part of the panel that had seven Division One players on it, it would have been amazing to play in.

“There’s always that risk of getting injured though and then I’d maybe have missed the Down county final, so there was only going to be one winner.

“It was a major honour to get selected and especially when you see the players that were picked. You had Padraig Walsh (Kilkenny), Peter Duggan (Limerick), David Fitzgerald (Clare) and even Neil McManus (Antrim) as well.

“The standard and being able to put yourself up against some of those players was amazing to be a part of. If it’s happening again this year, I’ll be pushing to try and make the panel again.”

Now though, it’s all about the red and black and Taggart is one of the older guard trying to take Down to a new level. Ronan Sheehan’s side have started the season well, narrowly losing to Laois in the first round of the league before defeating Kerry in round two.

2023 was a tough year for the Mourne hurlers. They survived the drop from Division 2A by the skin of their teeth, a round four draw with Derry saving their status, while they only picked up one win in the Joe McDonagh Cup campaign.

But a new year provides new opportunities and Taggart is targeting a big season with Down and the sky is the limit for them at the minute.

“Over the last few years, sometimes we’ve had training problems or different people travelling. This year a few of the older players like myself, Stephen Keith, Eoghan Sands, we all sat down with Ronan,” added Taggart.

“We said that if we were going to give this a really good crack then this year was going to be the year and Ronan took on everything we had to say. He brought in Trevor Fletcher as well and he’s been a massive boost to us.

“Obviously you have ‘Sully’ (Diarmuid O’Sullivan) there as well but in terms of the players we have and the work we’re putting in at the minute, I think it’s starting to show.

“We should have beat Laois the first week, but a few things went wrong. Then for us to put Kerry to the sword last weekend, that sort of just proves that we’re pushing hard.

“I think it maybe took those couple of years of things not working to finally get something to click. I think everyone has the one goal and we know the style we want to play and we’re all aiming towards that one goal.

“Our overall goal is to make it to Division One. Whether that be through winning the division or even finishing second, that’s our main goal. We want to bring teams like Limerick and Kilkenny to Ballycran.

“They haven’t been there in I’d say 15 or 20 years so that would be our main goal and to compete in the Joe McDonagh Cup.

“We let ourselves down last year, we only had one win so to compete in the Joe McDonagh Cup, maybe get to a semi-final or a final, that would be the main focus come championship.”

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