Our Season – Portaferry – A long wait is over

HERE’S the funny thing about Portaferry. Heading into the 2020 season they had lifted the Ulster Club title more recently than they had the Down Championship.

That shock provincial win in November 2014, when they completely out-hurled Antrim champions Cushendall, was set to herald a new dawn for the club, one where they could continually compete for Ulster titles.

Instead, rather than battling for the Four Seasons Cup, they went five years without lifting the Jeremiah MacVeagh Cup and lost three finals in-a-row between 2017 and ’19.

Daithi Sands’s desire to get over the line in Down was strong. He joined the panel in 2015, months after that famous Ulster success, but had no championship medals to show yet.

A work placement to America at the start of 2020 as part of his Ulster University hospitality degree also raised the possibility that his July return would leave him with just a bit-part role.

As it was, the Covid-19 pandemic meant that he returned home and was at the same base as the rest of the squad when the action resumed.

“I was always due back around July time because I was going into final year in September,” said Sands.

“So that was meant to be a mid-season return but it just happened to be when everyone was starting up again, so I timed it well.

“I think everyone else was trying to get back up to fitness as quickly as possible and I hadn’t been doing anything in America, so it suited me to start at the same point.

“The mood was good at that point. After all the Covid stuff everyone was just happy to be back training, for a change.

“We saw a big change in numbers. We had at least 30 boys every night. At times in the past, especially when Down training and the Antrim Leagues were going on, we could have struggled to get 15 or 20 boys. That makes a difference when you have boys that want to be there, and aren’t training just for the sake of it.”

Not many people make their debut in an All-Ireland semi-final but defender Barry Trainor is in that small group.

He came on in the 54th minute of their February 2015 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Limerick and Munster champions Kilmallock so, like Sands, he had yet to experience that moment on the pitch of winning a county title prior to the 2020 season.

He also saw Covid disrupt his overseas plans as he had been studying in England when the pandemic began.

“The preparations for this season were a lot harder,” said Trainior. “It started off with me having to fly home early from university over in Liverpool around March time when really I should have been there until about May.

“The season was a wee bit tricky, but in a way it worked out well for me. I was able to do a lot of fitness work, a lot of miles out road running. I had my fitness built up for when we were allowed to train in groups. We got a couple of group leaders and we were out in groups of six. That was before we could actually train as a whole team.

“We knew there wasn’t going to be an Antrim League. We knew there was going to be no Ulster so it was a wee bit hard on us that way.

“I have been in uni in Liverpool since 2017 so the three previous seasons I was always over there before the championship. I was always flying home for the semi-final or final so I never really felt that I was properly fit or ready. This year I could properly train and focus on it.”

A new format in Down following lockdown meant that teams would play six round-robin games with the top two progressing to the final.

Even with the extra fixtures, the margins were wafer-thin, so you can understand that the pressure was on them when Ballycran visited on matchday one and left with a 0-25 to 2-18 win.

Niall Milligan and Conor Mageean found the net, but Conor Woods, not for the last time, would prove a an extremely difficult opponent as his 16-point haul saw Ballycran through.

Sands helped himself to three points that day, but even though at the time he didn’t think so, he now believes that loss was the best thing to happen the side – even if he had to overcome the idea that he was the jinx for the St Patrick’s Park men.

“After that, I was thinking ‘Jesus, here we go again,’” he said.

“Another defeat by one point, one score, is this how it’s just going to be?

“I was convinced that I was some type of curse and that we weren’t going to win again. I also had it in my head that the year I went away was the year they would win it. I’d come back and we’d never win again.

“Six years on the panel without that medal, which is strange given there were only three teams for most of that.

“In the end it was probably the best thing to happen to us though. We found our rhythm and started winning games after that, but we could look at that loss as a reality check and realise we’re not world-beaters, we still can be beat and we have nothing to show for our efforts yet.”

That rhythm led to five wins on the trot to ensure top spot in the group with away wins racked up against Ballycran, Bredagh and Ballygalget.

It meant that they could be kingmakers in a way in round six as they welcomed Ballygalget. Bredagh had shocked Ballycran earlier that afternoon, so a win would mean a final against Ballycran. A draw or loss would see Ballygalget progress alongside them.

It was a tense, hard-hitting affair with ‘Galget being reduced to 14 men in the first half following Brook Byers’s dismissal. The visitors still led at the interval by a point, but Sands and Ryan Conway scored second-half goals to earn a 2-19 to 0-17 win.

“We definitely gathered momentum as the games went on,” Sands said.

“Coming into that last game against Ballygalget, obviously Bredagh beating Ballycran had put it up in the air about who we would be playing, but our managers just told us that it had nothing to do with us. They told us to go out and win our game, regardless of other results.”

For Trainor that opening-round loss to Ballycran stood out for one reason – pre-match nerves.

“We lost the first home game out in the park and it was one of the first games of my life that I have been really, really nervous for,” he said. “I don’t know what it was but I just remember being really nervous for that game.

“It was a very close match, it could have gone either way but the difference was the free count, we must have given away 15 or 20 frees.

“As usual the training (after the loss) was top notch. We got together as a group and spoke about it. Some of the players and the management team spoke about what was going wrong. Every training we were always in a good mood, we knew that we could cut out the silly mistakes from that game.

“Five straight wins in-a-row then. I think we played Bredagh the Wednesday up in Carryduff and won that.

“The next game was Ballygalget away and we were under pressure a wee bit in the first half but we kept calm and got through that match alright.

“The biggest moment for the team was when we beat Ballycran away. The conditions weren’t great but I thought the performance was brilliant and I don’t remember what we won that match by but it was over five points (1-18 to 0-13).

“It was a big statement, all over the pitch we worked hard.”

They would meet the ‘Cran twice more in the coming weeks though, and the ease of that group victory would never be repeated.

That’s not to say that they didn’t play well and in the final they twice had the match won before being caught by their opponents.

In normal time, Portaferry had led by a point late on before Scott Nicholson stroked over a leveller and then deep into extra-time, Woods’s free somehow found the net to force a replay. Trainor went home, didn’t speak a word to anyone and got into bed to escape from any potential chat about it.

It was difficult to accept, but the death of joint-manager Gary Smyth’s father Paddy in the lead-up to the game put things into perspective.

“Gary lost his dad, he would actually be a great-uncle of mine, my granny’s brother,” said Trainor.

“It was emotional for everyone. We knew we had Ballycran a couple of days later but training that week was a week bit emotional but we just had to focus and put the work in.

“We said as a group ‘let’s do this for Gary’ and I texted him and told him we’ll do it for your dad. We nearly got it done the first time, but we knew we’d get it done the second time.”

Smyth and his co-manager Peter Mallon saw a repeat of the first game in the replay. Portaferry were always looking that wee bit better but just couldn’t shake off their stubborn opponents, who were chasing a three in-a-row for only the third time in their history.

Sands turned his man and pointed early in the second half to push the Ports six clear, 0-11 to 0-5, but back Ballycran came to take eight of the next 10 points and when Liam Savage picked up a loose ball and swung over to level things up late on, more heartbreak looked on the cards.

Sands may have experienced plenty of near misses in club colours, but he said that he remained calm when the momentum appeared to swing against them.

“It does play in your head because of recent years and losing finals, but this year I sensed something was different. I think everyone had more faith in the team, more faith in the boys beside you.

“In the past when the pressure was on you would be doubting whether or not you could get over the line.

“This year, for some reason, it did feel different. Whatever happens we can and will get over the line – that was our feeling.”

And that’s exactly what happened. First his brother Eoghan brilliantly fired over from the right wing and then in the final moments, Daithi Sands caught the sliotar, shrugged off his marker and landed the insurance score to secure a 0-15 to 0-13 win.

For Trainor, getting over the line owed a lot to the input of the management team.

“Gary and Peter are brilliant man-managers,” said Trainor, who got the county call-up from Ronan Sheehan right after the replay. “They’re massive influences and very, very good.

“I thought the set-up was great this year with Gary and Peter as the managers and Paul (Braniff) and Ciaran (Coulter), ‘Dule’ and ‘Coogie’, were our coaches and they were absolutely brilliant. They’re probably two of the best players I ever played with growing up.

“What a feeling but again we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. Their midfield was still having a bit too much influence so we made a few adjustments, put Niall Milligan in to mark Phelim Savage and brought Eoghan Sands out the pitch to right half-forward.

“We always said that if we stop Ballycran’s midfield we will stop Ballycran. Niall Milligan did brilliantly on Phelim Savage.

“I got Man of the Match but I didn’t think I deserved it, I thought Eoghan Sands was the best player on the pitch by a mile but I’ll take what I get!”

Anyone watching may disagree with Trainor’s take. For the second week in a row he was outstanding and Portaferry had finally got their hands back on the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup.

“Especially because it’s my first, I don’t think it will ever be forgotten,” Sands added.

“The year that was in it, it was strange but it will never be forgotten.

“For me it was a relief more than anything. The monkey off the back and it does make it that wee bit sweeter when you contribute to the win.”

“There were a lot of health and safety protocols so we weren’t able to celebrate properly,” said Trainor. “But I’d still take that any day of the week over not being able to celebrate it at all.

“The feeling of winning that championship was absolutely amazing. That was my first championship actually playing, starting, feeling important to the team. When we won the Ulster I was part of the squad but I didn’t get that feeling.

“Watching people crying, it was absolutely nuts, it was one of the best feelings I have ever had.

“What made me proudest the most was just seeing massive club members and seeing their faces when we won. That’s what stood out to me.”

There’s no doubting the senior team brought joy in the most unusual of seasons. It was an unforgettable year for various reasons but Portaferry were champions of Down once again. A special moment in 2020 for the Ards club.

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