More intermediate success, and genuine county recognition for our players.
In 1999, under new management of Brendan Loughran and Art Ruddy, the Harps finally assembled a senior squad that was strong enough to gain promotion to Division I. Indeed, this year proved to be the most fruitful in the club’s history, winning the Intermediate Football Championship as well, beating Drumgath in the final, with Denis Crilly captaining a squad boasting nine players under the age 19.
The same year saw a couple of Ballyholland players make waves at county level. Ronan Murtagh played some tremendous games at left half-forward for the Down Minors in their All-Ireland winning run, while Shane Mulholland received an Irish News Ulster GAA All-Star for his performances at pivot for the Down seniors in their run to the Ulster final. Later that year, Mulholland would later frank that form by putting in a man of the match performance in a successful Railway Cup final.
The club entered division one in 2000 with one aim – survival. Although the whole season was spent in the relegation area, the aim was duly achieved and it has to be said that Ballyholland took more than a few teams by surprise during the season, in reaching the County Championship semi-final, beating the likes of Castlewellan & Rostrevor and drawing with ‘big-guns’ Mayobridge, Clonduff and Downpatrick. In doing so, it seemed the Harps proved they had what it takes to compete in division one.
The strength in depth of the senior squad that year was evident by the reserve team lifting their second league and championship double in three seasons.
Yet the second season in the top flight didn’t prove quite as successful. In fact, it nothing short of awful and the latter part of the season was played out rather than played for. A spate of injuries, combined with a lack of physical size, proved too big a burden for the club and a return to Division II was the result. Amazingly considering the season that went by, in the play-offs, only a few kicks of the ball stopped the seniors retatining Division 1 status.
Brendan and Art stepped down, and this heralded the introduction of the club’s first outsider as a manager, John Rafferty, for the 2002 season. This move into the unknown invigorated the club at first but unfortunately the senior team’s efforts fell just short of the promotion play-offs, when Longstone beat them in a play-off to get there.
What this year was more notable for though was the first signs that our juvenile football systems were being knocked into shape again. Sadly neglected for a number of seasons around the turn of the decade, a handful of club members such as Mickey Kearney, John Keenan, Cyril O’Reilly, Tommy Kane, Damien Dixon and Colm McAteer took the bull by the horns and began to build a future on the field again.
For 2003, the club turned to messrs Loughran and Ruddy again. The return of the ‘Mullets‘, as they became affectionately known, saw the Intermediate Championship trophy lifted for a record third time. Shane Mulholland was the victorious captain and he, along with Kevin Loughran, Colman Smith, Johnny Shields and Ciaran Hartigan, provided a tangible link through all three successes. Championship form wasn’t maintained throughout the league campaign though and the club unfortunately fell agonisingly short of a promotion play-off spot yet again.
By this stage Ronan Murtagh had usurped Shane Mulholland as a starter for the Down senior team, and he played a full role in a season during which they really should have won the Ulster Final, conceding a nine point, second half lead to Tyrone before losing the replay.
A little bit of effort goes a long way at Juvenile levels, and the 2003 season saw the Club become a force at underage levels again, as the under-12s swept all before them in a trophy-littered season, while the under-16s came up just short in their Championship final.
In 2004, the club celebrated its jubilee year. A year of events, including a wonderful gala ball in the Canal Court Hotel, marked the occasion – but the single best celebration occurred when the senior footballers, captained by Colman Smith, won Division II outright for the first time. As the senior camogs had done likewise in their division, all in all it proved to be a tremendous year for the Club.
Perhaps haunted by the memories of the last time in the top-flight, Brendan and Art chose to stand down again for 2005, and this move saw Shane Mulholland elevated to the position of player-manager. Indeed there was a general feeling of fear about Division I within the club. But in reality Ballyholland had grown in stature over those three seasons, and a rollercoaster season including victories over Burren, Bryansford, Clonduff and Kilcoo, went a long way to proving the doubters wrong. But despite beating Burren, again, in our first play-off match, we fell just short of survival.
The under-14s didn’t fall short, winning a South Down league and championship double, while our under-8s won three tournaments during the year. And that’s where I’ll pick this up again soon.