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Victory roar: Portaferry’s Ciaran Coulter celebrates a win over Cushendall with team mentor Joe Kelly

Victory roar: Portaferry’s Ciaran Coulter celebrates a win over Cushendall with team mentor Joe Kelly

Victory roar: Portaferry’s Ciaran Coulter celebrates a win over Cushendall with team mentor Joe Kelly

A few years back now, Loughgiel Shamrocks took a small punt in appointing a young manager in PJ O'Mullan junior.

His credentials were exemplary. His father was a Shamrock all his life and identifiable with the 1983 team that beat St Rynagh's of Offaly to land the All-Ireland club title. Junior had been around the club all his life and was a noted player before injury robbed him of the chance to play senior hurling.

Still, he was young. Very young.

Some might have thought it was a weakness of his. He thought he could turn it into a strength. One of his first duties upon being appointed manager was to approach that great and venerable man of Antrim hurling, Jim Nelson.

One evening he travelled to the Balmoral Hotel just outside Belfast, close to Nelson's home, making it as convenient as possible. He knew that once he started talking, it would be an operation that would require all he had to convince Nelson to come on board.

They met sometime around tea-time. By the time O'Mullan had laid out his vision and bounced enough ideas at Nelson, it was almost a new day. Nelson accepted and before long, they were on the Croke Park pitch, celebrating their new status as 2012 All-Ireland winners.

No fair-minded person involved in Antrim or Ulster hurling would have begrudged Loughgiel their success. Sure, there would have been envy, but envy is a healthy thing in inter-club and inter-county rivalry. It is the fuel that powers players through the 'muck and gutters' purgatory of pre-season.

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Around that time, Dunloy and Cushendall began to see themselves differently. Between 2003 and 2008 they had - with the notable contribution from O'Donovan Rossa in 2004 - managed to keep Loughgiel in check in Antrim county finals.

Some days, Loughgiel felt they were close, such as the one-point defeat to Cushendall in 2005. Other days they were miles away and when a banner was unveiled after one county final proclaiming them serial chokers, it was both accurate and cruel.

Anyway, Loughgiel got on with things. Managers arrived and left before they appointed O'Mullan and he assembled a backroom team of considerable expertise, from the technicians such as Nelson, to fitness coaches and the philosophical musings of Joe McGurk.

After beating Coolderry in the 2012 All-Ireland final, it appeared they could build a dynasty. However, two off-colour performances in their 2013 All-Ireland semi-final draw in Parnell Park, followed by a lethargic display in the replay, saw them fall to St Thomas' of Galway.

Loughgiel refused to see this as just the natural order of things and 12 months later were back to face Leinster surprise package Mount Leinster Rangers, tucked into the Carlow armpit of the Carlow-Kilkenny border.

On a gloomy day in Newry, the manic hunger of the Carlow men, along with some agonisingly close wides from the dead-ball struck by the usually deadly Liam Watson, combined to put a definitive comma - if not a full stop - at the end of this Loughgiel side's journey.

As a team on the road for that long, they were vulnerable, and Cushendall knew it when they hit them in the first round of the Volunteer Cup last summer. Two goals from Christy McNaughton signalled his arrival on the senior stage and appeared to pave their way to bigger and better things.

In truth, Cushendall never recaptured their form, and while they had 10 points to spare over St Gall's in the final, they were facing a side in their first-ever county final and weighed down by all the history that entails.

They slogged their way through two encounters with Slaughtneil, heavily relying on Shane McNaughton, who was recovering from a serious hip operation.

And then they fell to Portaferry in the Ulster final. We haven't mentioned Portaferry yet in this piece because nobody was even considering them. Not for Down, and certainly not for Ulster.

Apart from their manager Sean Young, a man in the O'Mullan mould.

In the Down semi-final, they weren't expected to get over Ballygalget, but they won by over 20 points.

In the final, Ballycran were already fancied to go on to better things. It is said that some prototype Ballycran polo tops were already circulating with 'Ulster Championship 2014' woven into the fabric.

For that game, Young had a level of detail that astonished his players. Ballycran had been lighting up the Antrim league and were contenders for Ulster. Portaferry beat them by a point. And then they beat Cushendall by nine points.

This weekend, Kilmallock of Limerick await in a semi-final.

Even allowing for their famous names, they would not cause any fear for Cushendall if they had got through, nor a re-energised Loughgiel.

So then, why should Portaferry fear them? Why indeed.


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