If Portrush were expecting an easy ride in this Sussex Cup semi-final against Down last Sunday it was anything but.

Portrush were widely expected to steam roll Down but it didn’t happen as the locals got their tactics spot on in the first half, getting close to dangerman Neil McMaster, denying him the opportunity to use the aerial ball.

Down welcomed back Richard Owens and he was of his side’s stand out performers, alongside Sinclair White and skipper Jeremy McCready in goal in what was a great team performance. Down tired in the second period, but that was always going to be the case.

Liam Kearney had his best game in a Down shirt, while Jordan Aidey and Mark Graham were two of the younger players who came of age in the cauldron of a tough semi-final.

Philip Brown was also impressive in his new role at the heart of the defence and while Portrush booked their place in the final, Down's players emerged with a lot of credit and left the pitch with their heads held high.

Down were missing Alasdair Duff, Gavin Ringland and Mark Elliott and had the experienced trio all been available, the outcome may well have been different. In the end, Portrush created the bulk of the goalscoring chances and made the most of them.

Indeed, their winning margin could have been greater had it not been for a number of superb saves from McCready who was under increasing pressure in the second half as the players ahead of him ran out of steam.

James McCook should have put the Ports 1-0 ahead in the 11th minute but he screwed his shot wide of the post with only McCready to beat before Paul Tate set up James Ferguson at the other end, but the latter lost control of the ball with just Ryan Smyth to beat.

John Dillon, who scored twice against Down in a Senior Two game three weeks ago, fired wide in the seventh minute. Seconds later he was denied a shot on goal by the hard-working Sinclair White who was tremendous in the middle of the park.

Portrush were awarded their first short corner in the eighth minute but Brown and McCready combined to clear. Owens denied Dillon a shot on goal two minutes later before James Erskine misjudged an aerial ball, allowing Dillon to get round the back of him, but the Portrush striker inexplicably missed the target.

McCready produced a smart save to deny Dillon after great build-up play involving McCook and Brent Smith, before Jordan Wade lost possession when well placed after good work from White and Chris Taylor.

Erskine cleared with Dillon waiting to pounce in the 15th minute before Brown was yellow-carded for back chat and sin-binned. Portrush seized the initiative to make most of their numerical advantage, but Down hung on. Mark Graham was causing problems on the right and came within a whisker of setting up Taylor four minutes from the interval.

Dillon missed another glorious opportunity to fire his side ahead with three minutes of the half remaining and seconds later McCready denied Callum McKeemin.

Portrush finally got their noses in front within three minutes of the restart when McMaster drilled an unstoppable shot into the net. He probably should have been tackled before he unleashed his shot, but his effort deserved a goal.

Four minutes later, McCready produced a brilliant double save to deny Dillon and Smith. A second Portrush goal looked as though it was coming and it arrived in the ninth minute from a short corner when Dillon found his range at last, drilling the ball home.

White looked as though he was about to make it 2-1 in the 46th minute, but his shot struck the base of the post and the ball rebounded to safety before Aidey robbed Brent Smith as he prepared to shoot.

Dillon again fired wide before McCready kicked clear from Smith while Aidey was denied a scoring opportunity at the other end. Ferguson blocked Dillon and young Lewis McIntosh looked as though he was going to get a shot on goal before the ball struck his heel and a free was awarded.

Portrush made it 3-0 with a scrappy goal from McCook who was allowed to ghost in on the blind side to deflect the ball past McCready with nine minutes to go.

Down produced a gutsy and determined display and while they missed the chance to face Ballynahinch in the New Year's Day final, the sides come up against each other this Saturday in a Senior Two league game at St. Colman's High and Sixth Form College.