Sunday 22nd November 2020
Christy Ring Cup final: Down v Kildare (Sunday 22nd Nov, 4pm, Croke Park, live on TG4’s YouTube channel)
IT must have been a strange couple of days for all connected with Down, the calm after the storm in a week that climaxes with a Christy Ring Cup final date with 2018 champions Kildare tomorrow.
Last Saturday’s momentous, dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Offaly – the most significant Championship win the Ardsmen have enjoyed in decades - is still visible in the rearview mirror, but could not be savoured for any longer than was necessary.
Instead, Ronan Sheehan’s side can only have eyes on the road ahead as they bid to right the wrongs of a Royal rude awakening on their last visit to Croke Park 17 months ago. Any loss of focus and the same fate could await them against a strong, powerful Lilywhites side.
That 2019 Christy Ring final defeat to Meath still stings but, with the experience of men like Conor Woods – who played in the 2009 Ring decider - and the physicality of Donal Hughes back in the fold, sharpshooter Eoghan Sands believes Down are better equipped this time around.
“It would have been a lot of our guys’ first time playing in Croker - a lot was made of that in the run in to the game,” said Sands, who is back home in Portaferry now after commuting from Carrick-on-Shannon in the lead up to last year’s Ring decider.
“The guys were maybe a little nervous going into the game; we didn't score for the first 18 minutes. We had all the play, we just couldn't seem to get over the line. Once we did, we pushed on. Meath were probably just that bit stronger than us.
“Last year's experience will stand to us. With no crowds there, maybe there is that wee bit of pressure off and the boys can go out and hurl with a bit of freedom.”
Sands and brother Daithi, who provide part of the attacking thrust of a small but pacy Down side, were brought up on stories of the days when dad Noel and his team-mates were fit to mix it with the big boys across Ireland.
Down and Offaly may not be operating at the level of their 1990s heyday, but that is to take nothing away from the scale of last Saturday’s epic at Pairc Esler.
Being a goal sniffer supreme, Sands would have been more than happy to try his luck when penalties came, but was only too delighted to see experienced goalkeeper Stephen Keith emerge as the hero of the hour – the Ballycran man saving three penalties before lashing home to seal the deal.
“Leading up to the game there was a lot of talk about the last time Down played Offaly in the championship 25 years ago, 1995. That was actually the year I was born, my father would have been playing.
“I know Down have beaten Offaly a few times in the National League, but they were coming off the back of their All-Irelands and Down were full going for them. To beat them in a Championship game was something special.
“I actually hit the penalties for our club, but it is a bad job whenever your full-back and goalkeeper are hitting them before your full-forward. I'll say nothing. That wasn't my decision.
“Ronan picked the five. Stephen actually came to me, he knew I wanted to hit one, and said, do you want to hit mine and I'll step aside. I said to him, 'look, he's picked you, it’s your time'.
“It was almost fairytale stuff the way it worked out. Stephen has been soldering with the county for years, he's the oldest member of our squad, he's our captain, so I was absolutely delighted for him.
“When he stepped up, I had no doubt he was going to put it away.”
Although Offaly were viewed by many as Christy Ring champions-elect, Sands knows that victory will count for nothing if Down don’t finish the job tomorrow.
Already the counties have met twice in this strange, elongated season, firstly in the Kehoe Cup – “it was that cold we were making cups of tea at half-time to keep us warm” – and then in a de facto league Division 2B semi-final in Liatroim back in March.
Down won on both occasions, and Sands is hopeful that the wide open spaces of Croke Park will suit them once the game gets under way.
“We wouldn't be the most physically imposing team but we have pace and we have the hurlers to play the ball to hand and through the lines.
“Croke Park will probably will suit us. Kildare will recognise that and they'll be closing the space down. This season we’ve played them twice and we’ve beat them both times so they’ll be hungry to get the win.
“Them seeing us beat Offaly, they’ll be saying why can’t we go and beat Down now? All the talk’s about Down, let’s go and beat them. Kildare will fancy their chances.”