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Down boss Sheehan eyes Christy Ring Cup success after 'divine intervention'

Friday 20th November 2020

Down boss Sheehan eyes Christy Ring Cup success after 'divine intervention'

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI
Ronan Sheehan
Down manager Sheehan hopes to build on last week's dramatic Christy Ring Cup semi-final shootout win

Last Saturday, with Down's hurlers on the precipice of history, Ronan Sheehan had a moment to himself on the touchline.

It was Down vs Offaly in the Christy Ring Cup. It was the semi-final. It was penalties.

At one stage, it looked as though Down's race had been run. Offaly, tipped by many to go all the way this year, led 2-0 in the first-ever inter-county hurling championship penalty shootout at Pairc Esler.

Down's hopes were fading fast in Newry, but goalkeeper Stephen Keith wasn't prepared to give up just yet.

By saving Offaly's next two efforts, Keith kept Down in the thing. It was 2-2 after four attempts apiece.

Sheehan expects tight contest against Kildare at Croke Park

The climax was a gripping tale of two keepers. Offaly's Stephen Corcoran wilted under the pressure, though, firing wide to clear the stage for his opposite number.

Then, as Keith (affectionately known as 'Viper') stood over the ball, steadying himself for a potentially decisive swing of his hurl, Down manager Sheehan gazed up at the heavens.

"At that stage, I was looking up at the sky, asking my father for a little divine intervention with the man above," Sheehan tells BBC Sport NI's Mark Sidebottom.

"I had a lot of confidence that Viper would save penalties, but given we had missed two already, the pressure was definitely on him to finish it off."

Keith the hero in historic shootout

Sheehan's last-minute request to dad Jerry, a former Down county board chairman, clearly did the trick.

Keith, whose own father Noel was the goalkeeping great of Down's early 90s golden era, slammed the ball beyond a flat-footed Corcoran.

His arms raised in elation, Keith turned around and was quickly swallowed up by a sea of red and black.

Down had done it.

They couldn't do it in normal time as a ding-dong battle finished 1-16 apiece.

They couldn't quite do it in extra-time either despite Daithi Sands' goal as Liam Langton brought Offaly back from the brink with two late points to ensure 90 gruelling minutes of hurling ended 2-20 to 1-23.

I was looking for a bit of divine intervention - Sheehan

But they did it on penalties, staring down the barrel before adding a unique chapter to the county's history.

The significance of the achievement was not lost on Sheehan.

"That was probably the most notable victory Down have had in a long, long while," he said.

"I don't think it ranks with the Ulster victories when we beat Antrim at time when both Down and Antrim were going very well, and indeed those early 90s glory years for Down, but probably for anything over the past 25 years, it's right up there."

Another momentous day

It was another momentous day for Down hurling, a month on from clinching the Division 2B title with victory over Derry.

Now the county can look forward to a year brimming with possibilities in 2021.

Before that, however, there is the small matter of taking on Kildare in the Christy Ring decider.

Both finalists have automatically booked a spot in next season's Joe McDonagh Cup, but for Sheehan, this Sunday's final at Croke Park offers a tantalising opportunity to secure a piece of silverware and cap a rollercoaster of a year, on and off the field.

"Absolutely," Sheehan says when asked if he expects the final to go down to the wire.

"There is nothing between ourselves and Kildare. They have some fantastic hurlers there with Jack Sheridan, James Burke and Paul Divilly, and they're managed by David Herity, one of the Kilkenny greats, so they will provide a massive test for us on Sunday."

Players 'living like monks' to avoid Covid drama

It has been a trying year for Down, as it has for everyone.

In March, they were due to face Derry in the Division 2B final at Davitt Park in Belfast.

Then the pandemic hit and upended the entire season. But having returned to training in September, Sheehan has been impressed with the caution his players have shown during their post-lockdown journey in an attempt to avoid further disruption to their campaign.

"I don't think people realise the lifestyle the lads have had to lead in the last six or eight weeks.

"They have been incredibly careful by reducing their contacts, we've only had one close contact in the whole squad.

"Outside of that, we've had nothing and that's a testament to their dedication, basically living like monks and I think Sunday will be a fantastic reward for this group of players."

Only Kildare stand between Down and the Christy Ring, and if, as Sheehan predicts, it goes down to the wire, perhaps he will find another few seconds on the touchline to look up to the sky and ask dad for a favour.