Sands of time: Brother Daithi and Eoghan hoping to follow in footsteps of dad Noel in Christy Ring decider
EVEN on the days when Down didn’t quite come up to the mark in Croke Park, Noel Sands was never found wanting – and next Saturday his two sons will trot out onto the same turf, ready to wreak havoc too.
Neither Eoghan (24) nor Daithi (21) was even born when their father captained the Ardsmen to the 1992 Ulster title, at a time when the provincial championship was a prize worth winning.
Lifting the Liam Harvey Cup not only secured bragging rights for the year ahead, it also guaranteed a share of the Liam MacCarthy stage with hurling’s traditional heavyweights.
Down never managed to bridge that gap at Jones’s Road, yet Sands was still able to shine on the hallowed turf, with Allstar nominations following typically whole-hearted displays in All-Ireland semi-final defeats to Cork (1992) and Offaly (1995), as well as the last eight exit to Tipperary in 1997.
The tenacity and craft that were Sands’s hallmark have been passed down to his boys, both of whom will line out in Down’s Christy Ring Cup final clash with Meath next week.
Younger sibling Daithi has only fleeting memories of the latter stages of his father’s playing days in the red and black but, to him, bearing the Sands name has always been a source of pride rather than a millstone around the neck.
“My brother would probably say different from me,” he smiles.
“I was always happy enough - it’s a good thing to be Noel Sands’s son in my eyes. Eoghan probably heard it a lot more than I would have because he was the first, and he would probably prefer to be his own man, but it’s always going to be there. I just take it in my stride.
“I was only born in ’98 but I remember going to Casement to see him… I was just running about really, not actually paying any attention to what was going on in the match or anything.”
When Sands senior eventually hung up his hurl, he soon got involved at underage level in the club, keeping a close watch on the progress of Eoghan, Daithi and sister Saoirse, who plays for the successful Down camogie side.
That involvement eventually transferred to the senior stage until recently, as Portaferry went in search of the Down championship title that has eluded them since 2014.
For Daithi, who only came onto the senior panel in 2015, the wait for that first championship medal goes on after coming within the puck of the ball of victory in successive finals.
There was frustration, anger even at decisions that went against them, but once back between the four walls of home, the hurling talk was parked.
“The past two years were disappointing because it was so close,” says Daithi.
“Last year [against Ballycran], we feel, was definitely one that got away. I’m still chasing my first one because 2014 was the last time, the year we went on and won Ulster… when I came onto the panel the next year I thought ‘this is great, I’m going to get a load of medals’ - and then nothing since!
“There wouldn’t really have been too much talk about it. I’m living at home, but I always kept things separate; I never brought it up. My brother would be more similar to him and that could spill over into the house sometimes; he wouldn’t be afraid to say what he thought.”
Such spirited discussions don’t take place as often nowadays though, with Eoghan currently living in Carrick-on-Shannon after work commitments took him to Killeshandra in county Cavan.
Making the journey back to the Ards for games involves a six hour round trip as a result, yet only hell or high-water would stop him turning out in the colours of club or county. When it’s in the blood, it’s in the blood.
And it will be a proud moment for the entire Sands clan when the brothers run out at Croke Park next Saturday, following in the footsteps of their father as Down set about rumbling the Royals.
“Growing up, we practically lived out here,” he says, nodding towards the field in Portaferry that has been their playground for as both can remember.
“I only played just one year at juvenile and it was Eoghan’s last year at that grade, so we never really got to play together properly until minors and then with the seniors I was starting to play with him more regularly.
“But getting to Croke Park is what you always wanted to do... I’ve actually played there before. Well, sort of - it was at half-time of an All-Ireland semi-final, I can’t remember which one, in the year of the GAA’s 125 year anniversary .
“I got hit in the hand and had to go the medical room and I remember thinking that was class - getting to go to the medical room in Croke Park. It’s a bit surreal now that we’re actually going to be playing a competitive match there, a Christy Ring final.
“When you’re growing up and you hear about your dad playing, that’s your goal then – ‘I want to do that too’. If I’d been told three or four years ago that we’d end up playing together at Croke Park, I don’t think I’d have believed it.
“Now we have to make the most of the chance when we’re there.”