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Hero hurlers battle into Ring final

18 November 2020

No one gave them a chance.

They were there to make up the numbers.

 

They were to be canon fodder for a vastly superior Offaly team.

Well in a thrilling encounter that went all the way to extra-time and then penalties, Down emerged with a wondrous victory … arguably the greatest Mourne hurling victory of all time.

Down confounded the pundits and the odds to defeat the Faithful county, snap up a place in next week’s Christy Ring Final at Croke Park against Kildare and earn a spot in the McDonagh Cup next season … in Division 2A.

And by God they deserved it. Never have a team battled so courageously.

Even when Offaly threatened to blow them apart, the Down lads never gave an inch.

Even in the penalty shoot-out when they trailed 2-0.

But the red and black-shirted heroes kept their focus, pulled it back to two apiece and when their keeper and captain Stephen Keith slammed home the winning puck, it was celebration time.

Perhaps it was fitting that their skipper would hit that winning puck. In the shoot-out he made three classy saves and with 10 minutes left and Down trailing, he produced one of the bravest saves of the season to keep his side in contention.

Manager Ronan Sheehan was overjoyed at his side’s success, saying: “It is the greatest victory in my time. The way we came back was absolutely mind-boggling.

“But going out today we knew we had a great chance. We are as good as anybody. I have massive faith in these lads as I’ve had some of them since they were under 14.

“For me tradition counts for an awful lot. If you look through the names on that team sheet today you’ll find Hughes, Keiths, Paul Sheehan, Conor Woods, The Sands, Pearse Og McCrickard etc. These names are all synonymous with Down hurling.”

When Ronan was asked how the team kept coming back, he replied: “I suppose that comes from belief. I been telling people those lads are as good as anyone. 

“We deliberately didn’t start Phelim Savage today but we said we would bring him on in the last 25 minutes to give us energy. And he was super when he did come on.

“While Daithi Sands, John McManus and Caolan Taggart are as good as anyone. David O’Sullivan was up coaching us last year and he said if CT was down south he would be on any panel in Ireland. We have hurlers as good as anyone. I’m just delighted we got our reward today.”

Cillian Kiely opened the scoring for the visitors in the first minute but 60 seconds later Down scorched into a lead, Eoghan Sands kicking the sliotar into the Offaly net.

Two scores from big midfielder Eoghan Cahill pulled the teams level. 

And although Pearse Og McCrickard again edged Down in front, on eight minutes Shane Kinsella sent the Faithful county in front with a blistering drive into the net.

It was nip and tuck until the break with neither side able to establish control or more than a two-point advantage.

Eoghan Sands, Pearse Og McCrickard, Daithi Sands and four excellent dead ball points from Oisin McManus were the home team scorers while Kinsella, Peter Geraghty (2) and Cahill (3) did the business at the other end.

At half-time Offaly led by a point 1-9 to 1-8 but immediately on the restart Down levelled via a McManus free.

However, the visitors piled on the pressure and by 50 minutes they had established a three-point gap. The accurate Cahill slammed over three of these scores with Kinsella also finding the range twice. 

Meanwhile two stunning points from McCrickard and McManus kept Down’s hopes alive.

Also in that spell the referee Sean Stack had awarded Offaly a dubious penalty. But justice was seen to be done when Cahill slammed his puck against the angle of the post and crossbar.

 

The tension was building

Down were beginning to realise the game was there for the winning. McManus and Hughes cut the gap to a single score but Kiely made it two again with 12 minutes left to play.

And when Down substitute Paul Sheehan hit the target there was just a single point between the teams.

Still, it might have been game over on the hour when Offaly substitute Adrian Hynes pounced just 12 yards out and drilled low towards the net. 

A goal?

No.

The flying figure of Stephen Keith hurled himself into the path of the sliotar to make a truly courageous block. 

Six minutes left and Down received a tremendous boost when Owen Sands fired over a sensational equaliser, fully 55 metres out on the left touchline.

Five minutes to go and Cahill again put Offaly in front.

Hynes almost finished off Down when he hit a scorcher but his shot rocketed off the woodwork. However, with three minutes of normal time remaining Barry Trainor scored a brilliant point from way out on the right flank to make it 1-16 apiece.

 

Extra time

Once more the visitors surged in front with mighty scores from Kiely and Tomas Geraghty and once more Down refused to buckle. They dragged themselves into contention with super points from Paul Sheelan (2) and Conor Woods. While two Hynes points at the other end gave Offaly a single-point advantage at half-time in extra-time.

On the resumption Eoghan Sands hit a monster puck into the Offaly goal-mouth with an alert Daithi Sands scooping the ball over the line and into the back of the Offaly net. Down were in front with time running out.

However, the game refused to die. Treacy and Paul Sheehan traded scores and astonishingly with two minutes of extra-time remaining Down led by two points.

Still in those late, late minutes a couple of scores from substitute Conor Langton ensured the match went into penalties.

 

More thrills

Offaly scored with two from their first three pucks – from Cahill and Treacy, while Marc Fisher had his shot saved.

Again it looked curtains for the red and blacks. But when Conor Woods and Caolan Taggart both drilled into the net and Stephen Keith made two brilliant saves, it was all down to the last puck. And that man Keith proved to be the Down hero when he slammed into the back of the Offaly net to win a fantastic match for the home side.

The final words went to Down manager Ronan Sheehan: “We’re back at Croke Park on the hundredth anniversary of Bloody Sunday and it means a hell of a lot to us. And its great for people like Sean og (McAteer) and the McCrickards, people who kept hurling alive at difficult times.” 

Can Down win in Croke Park?

“Next week is a massive game for us, concluded the Down boss.

“But all I’ll say is Down hurling is on the way back. It’s fantastic.”

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