By Michael McMullan
FOR six weeks after winning a 27th Down senior title, Ballycran kept themselves ticking over, slightly in the dark with regards to their Ulster final opponents, but they’d a fair idea of the magnitude of the challenge.
Goalkeeper Stephen Keith knew one thing, whoever they faced would be a big ask as they bid for a first Ulster Championship since the club’s third success in 1993, when his father Noel was the man between the sticks.
Whoever emerged from last weekend’s showdown in the Athletic Grounds would have a competitive game under their belt and primed for action.
“I played against a lot of the Sleacht Néill boys with the county and we play Dunloy twice in the Antrim leagues,” said Keith junior.
The Down champions trained on Sunday morning, giving whoever wanted to take in Sleacht Néill’s win over Dunloy the chance to take in the game.
On the cusp of Christmas, Keith had to settle for video footage of the challenge Brendan Rogers and co will bring to Corrigan Park on Sunday.
Along with his wife Louise, they arranged visit for their daughter Aoife to see Santa ahead of her first Christmas.
“It is a bit up in the air until you find out the result…now we know now we have Sleacht Néill. We know it is a big ask.
“They have won three of the last four Ulster titles. They pushed Ballyhale all the way in the last All-Ireland campaign. Hopefully there is one big performance and that get us over the line on Sunday.”
Keith was the goalkeeper when Loughgiel swatted them aside in the 2011 and seven years later when – after they beat Sleacht Néill in the semi-final – they went down to Cushendall.
A combined 2-10 from Cormac O’Doherty and Rogers saw the Emmet’s overcome Ballycran at the Ulster semi-final stage in 2015. It was Michael McShane’s first win in Ulster and it was Keith’s first time facing Sleacht Néill at senior level.
“I have been playing in goals for nearly 17 years… I always had an interest in it,” said Keith who played outfield until minor level.
“I always had it in my mind that I’d be in nets for the seniors and I wanted to do nets. For a goalkeeper, that’s a big thing. You want somebody in nets who wants to be there.”
He puts the attraction down to the new era of the ‘sweeper/keeper’ with Eoin Murphy and the like making it trendy.
Going into this season, Ballycran welcomed a new management team of former minor manager Jamie Fowler – who served with Gary Savage and Mick Braniff in the past – and James Henry Hughes.
“Chris Clarke came in as coach. He used to play for the Johnnies (St John’s in Belfast) and is married into Liatroim. He is first class and all has been going well so far,” said Keith, who has worked as a bricklayer with Fowler in recent years.
Since their 2-25 to 3-20 extra-time win over Portaferry in the Down final at the end of October, Ballycran have kept themselves ticking over with games against Carryduff, Dublin college team DIT and Ulster Intermediate finalists Banagher.
“We training away three times a week, but whenever you are in an Ulster final, it is easy getting the boys out training,” Keith pointed out.
While they had to wait until Sunday night to rubberstamp their opponents, it was a case of topping up on their fitness.
“There would be tough work at training, a bit of tackling with the fitness and sharpness before the last week…then it would be just tapering down and looking at way you want to play,” Keith added.
The new indoor training area allowed them to prepare with a selection of possession based games. Their focus, until this week, has been what stood to them in good stead so far.
Goals from Brett Nicholson and Liam Savage couldn’t prevent them from a three-point defeat to Portaferry in the first group game.
Ballycran have not looked back since.
“We have a style of play that has worked for us through the Down Championship,” Keith stressed. “Now, the managers will sit down and tell us and we’ll try and get our match-ups right.
“We’ll go 15 against 15, we’ll work like dogs and hopefully get the result.
“We know who the dangermen are. We have a fair idea who will be marking who and how to curtail them come Sunday.”