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05th Feb 2015

Portaferry hoping to overcome the odds again in AIB GAA Club Championship

Kilmallock provide #TheToughtest test yet this weekend for Ulster champions

Kevin McGillicuddy

Down’s hurling champions have been beating the form book all season

Portaferry may have to travel 350km for this weekend’s AIB GAA Championship All-Ireland senior club semi final against Kilmallock in Thurles, but the journey the club have been on over the last number of years stretches far beyond that.

They are just the third side from Down to win the provincial series with their nine point win over Cushedall in December.

The newly crowned Ulster champions have had to overcome several obstacles on their way to glory over the last 12 months,most notably their geographical position. This club knows what it is like to survive and prosper in the toughest club championship around. Down hurling legend and club forward Paul Braniff explains the difficulties associated with hurling in the Mourne County.

‘Getting challenge games or even training facilities, it’s very tough. We’re down in the peninsula so we have to get a ferry and then travel an hour before we get to Newry. All our training sessions are based in Downpatrick so we have to get a ferry to Strangford and then a 15 minute drive to to the base for training. It’s £40-50 for every ferry trip and the club has to pay that themselves, it’s not subsidised. You end up leaving home at 6.30pm and back at 10-15pm or so three evenings a week.’

Braniff reveals that the club are facing a challenge trying to cover its costs,especially with an unexpected but welcome run through the provincial series and all the way to an All-Ireland semi final.

‘I would say us getting to this stage, we’re making new ground as such so we usually don’t have to incur this expense but I’d say they’re (the club) getting a shock now. We don’t have the facilities to train at this time of the year so we have to go to this college that has a base where we have gym and sports hall and synthetic pitch all within the one base, and we have to pay for that as well.’

Being one of just three senior clubs in Down, Portaferry play their league games in Antrim while the senior championship is just a semi final and final. The county is known more for its football than hurling, and the man who made his debut for his county at 17 admits trying to develop hurling is a massive challenge.

‘It’s hard to grow hurling because its predominately football and in our peninsula that’s where the hurling focus is. They do play hurling in the rest of the county but its at intermediate or junior level and we find it very hard  to produce senior players for the county from those clubs. We play in Antrim to get that level of hurling.’

John Convery raises the Four Season Cup 2/11/2014

Kilmallock will have been well warned as to what Ulster sides are capable of in the All-Ireland series, after Loughgiel put Na Piarsaigh to the sword in the 2012 semi final on their way to that year’s March 17th triumph.  The Antrim side are still the only team from the province to have won a senior club title. The Down club hurling veteran reveals his admiration for their predecessors as the northern representative in the All-Ireland series.

‘They’re a fabulous side. Everyone thinks Loughgiel came and it was smash and grab but it wasn’t. That was a long time coming. They got to so many Ulster finals but couldn’t get over the line. Absolutely, looking back at what they done it sets the benchmark for the rest’.

Braniff also sees parallels in what the then Ulster champions faced when taking on the Munster champions, and how his own side are rated this coming weekend in Thurles. Kilmallock are evens to win while Portaferry are rated at 9/1 outsiders. It’s not something that bothers Braniff as they have been rated as underdogs for nearly all their games.

‘Like ourselves, Loughgiel were fierce underdogs going into the game and we’re almost written off you could say and sure you couldn’t be going in in a better state. It takes a lot of the pressure off and hopefully we go in and play with a lot of freedom.’

They were the surprise winners of the Down county title against Ballycran and then shocked Cushednall in the Ulster finale by eight points. Braniff says that upsetting expectations is something they’re beginning to enjoy.

‘We went in against Cushendall who beat the Derry champions and the odds were criminal. Ok, we were underdogs but we were being totally written off but we were very familiar with Cushendall from playing in the Antrim league. And we thought, underdogs yes, but we’ve still got a chance going into this here.  We were quietly confident coming into it  and I think the way we started the game set out the stall. And they were caught on their heels a bit.’

Braniff also laughs at the suggestion that maybe some hard-core Portaferry supporters may have may put some money on the team upsetting the odds so spectacularly with the 1-16 to 0-11 win.

‘There was a few boys that had a few wagers on but they are the lads that have been backing us for years so hopefully they regained what they lost over the years’

Ciaran Coulter celebrates with team mentor Joe Kelly at the final whistle 2/11/2014

There has been much written and said  about Thulres as a venue that the venue and how it  gives Kilmallock an unfair advantage. There’s no doubt it seemed like an odd decision considering the enormous travel involved for one side in particular but for the Portaferry full forward it really isn’t a concern.

‘It’s not the worst in the world to play in Thurles. It’s a field that every hurler strives to play on. So although its a bit of a jaunt for us and its an advantage to a Munster team playing in a munster venue,playing in Thurles as part of a double header for the All-Ireland semi final-its an opportunity you don’t want to mess up. Its a big game and we want to make the most of it. ‘

Portaferry have been on an incredible journey over the last 12 months but they’re keen that regardless of what happens this weekend, the quest for success does not stop at the full time whistle. Paul Braniff sees the success enjoyed by this generation as a reward not only for the current players, but everyone who has gone before. He feels that it is owed to everyone that the club use their passage to the last four of the All-Ireland club series not as an end point but a beginning.

‘We’ve been plugging away for years and players came and went and they sacrificed for where we are now and they couldn’t achieve  provincial success. Within the club we’re driving on,our ambition from now  is to develop a center so we can train in house.’

Throw in on Saturday in Thurles is at 2pm and the game is followed  by the clash between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Gort at 3.45pm.

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