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Late bloomer Harrison keen to raise Croke Park roof with Down


By Declan Bogue

When Down's Connaire Harrison sprints onto the Croke Park pitch this afternoon, his father Liam will be in the stands, looking after eight-year-old grandson, CJ.

Almost 26 years ago, Liam had a different vantage point for the 1991 All-Ireland final.

The Mournemen were playing Meath and he had prepared diligently. A red and black ribbon was tied around his forehead. Three ribbons were fastened to each leg, one on each wrist and he was flying an enormous red and black flag.

But there's no point going to all that effort just to blend in. So Liam climbed onto the roof of the Nally Stand and had an uninterrupted view.

"Heat of the moment," he laughed. "The Guards were shouting at me to come down. So I did come down, at the end. Up there I was happy enough!"

Asked how his father managed to get up there, Connaire shot back: "I don't think he knows himself!"

There are other priorities today. Liam will not want to miss any tiny detail of the first time his son plays in Croke Park.

Harrison, along with Galway's Damien Comer, have signposted the worth of a big, strong man at full-forward this summer.

Playing against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final, Harrison walked off with the man of the match award, the GAA footballer of the week award, three points from play and the scalp of his marker, Drew Wylie.

It's been a serious turn of events for a man that had previously flopped in county football, having failed to feature for a minute of Championship action under James McCartan (left) in 2013.

Even as recently as late April, he didn't consider himself part of manager Eamonn Burns' plans.

"A month before the Championship, I felt I was nowhere near the 26, never mind the starting 15. I thought I was miles away," the 26-year-old revealed. "About three weeks out from the Championship, we were playing in-house games and it just started to click. Things started to fall into place, I was playing well, confidence was starting to grow.

"The Friday night before the game against Armagh, the team was named. And Eamonn pulled the inside forwards in and told me that I was starting. I wasn't expecting it."

He never had any bother coming through the county scene at under-age level, but sometimes there can be a 'smaller club syndrome' where players find it hard to establish themselves.

Having managed a series of clubs at that level, Burns had no such qualms about Harrison.

Glasdrumman lies at the foot of the Mournes, dry stone wall country. The club play in maroon, blue and green, their colours reflecting the stunning landscape of heather, the sea and luscious fields, which the Harrisons farm.

"Whenever Glasdrumman went well and we won a Junior Championship, Eamonn approached me and asked me to come back into the panel. I sort of deliberated over it for a while. He asked me and I didn't get back to him for five or six weeks," said Harrison.

"We didn't know where I stood at the end of it all and I had to make a few phonecalls to a few people to see what the story was and I ended up going back."

It hasn't all been easy. Harrison is a joiner and gives immense praise to his employer, the Glasdrumman chairman Gary McGreevy, for allowing him to skip off from the site the odd day at 4pm in order to make it to training.

And then there's his wedding to Jaclyn on New Year's Eve next year to plan, along with setting themselves up in life, having made the short move to Longstone a while ago.

But it has been worth it.

"To tell you the truth, I have been really enjoying it, which is the biggest surprise," he joked. "I had a good run at it in 2013, didn't get a Championship game or even get on and get some taste of it. I just fell away then. I got fed up with it and I walked away.

"It got to the stage that when I went back in 2014 I was injured, I never got much league action.

"I called a head to it, felt I wasn't going to push myself on if I wasn't getting any football at all. I felt rusty then when I was back."

The sweetener is the extra time he gets to spend with CJ, who is hardly ever out of his Down gear all summer.

"He is over the moon," bubbled the proud father.

"I take him to training with me most nights, just whenever the good weather came in and he is off school, I take him over to training and he loves it. He gets on well with the boys and they are good to him.

"I just tell him to stay out of the road and be careful he is not hit with a ball. He will go in and lift balls and the boys treat him well."

In the Ulster final, Tyrone had him double-marked. No surprise there. He got his hands on some ball but the Red Hands defence is a mean beast and squeezed any space inside.

"Monaghan play with a sweeper obviously, but Tyrone play with Colm Cavanagh, one of the best sweepers in the country, and maybe a man either side of him at times," he explained.

After that defeat, it was one of those quirks of fate that Monaghan would get a shot at redemption today. All the surprises are out of the bag, everyone says.

But that's not how they say it in Down.

"Personally, I don't think about things like that or let them get to me," added Harrison.

"At the end of the day, if you want to go places or win anything, you have to beat what is in front of us.

"So we have to play them again and I can tell you now, how we feel in Down, we are really going to give it a rattle."

We might see Liam up on a roof again soon.

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