'Magic' moments stay with Paul Sheehan ahead of Down's latest Christy Ring tilt
WHEN you grow up a mile-and-a-half from St Mary’s Park in Burren, the chances are it won’t be long before you’re clad in green and white, able to rhyme off every Down, Ulster and All-Ireland title success without a pause.
Unless, of course, you’re Paul Sheehan. Instead of dreaming about emulating Burren greats like John ‘Shorty’ Treanor or Paddy O’Rourke, his heroes were Paul Braniff and Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnston, or Ben and Jerry O’Connor.
“I used to bring my hurley down to the pitch,” he says, “I played football too until I was 22, 23, but it was only a pastime.
“Hurling’s the serious business.”
A nephew of current county boss Ronan Sheehan, the family has strong connections to the Newry Shamrocks club, for whom he hurls, but Cork blood ensured an affinity with the Rebel County that backboned their love of the caman code.
“My dad Eoin played and I remember going to Casement to watch Down, and coming over to Ballygalget to see them playing Cork in the snow,” he recalls.
“I even saw them play Westmeath in Burren one time… it was just the done thing to follow the county. And if Down weren’t playing, I’d be at a Cork match.”
By 2012, however, Paul Sheehan found himself pulling on the same red and black jersey as the men he had spent countless hours pretending to be.
And within 18 months he was part of Down side that won the Christy Ring Cup, defeating Kerry in the final on a sun-soaked day at Croke Park.
“When you’re young you don’t think you’ll ever get to play with some of those boys, but Paul Braniff, I absolutely idolised the man. To be able to say you played two or three years of your county career with him is brilliant - I learnt a lot off him too.
“I wouldn’t like to tell the big man this either because he’s one of my mates, but I always looked up to ‘Magic’ as well – an absolutely class hurler.
“When I was 14, 15, those boys were establishing themselves and when they were at the peak of their powers they were as good as any hurler in Ireland.”
This Saturday, Down are back on the big stage against a Meath side who start as raging hot favourites.
Braniff and Johnston are long gone and, at 28, Sheehan is an elder statesman on a side that contains just four survivors – himself, Stephen Keith, Matt Conlon and Danny Toner - from the starting 15 that stormed the Kingdom six summers ago.
It was Johnston who grabbed the headlines that day with a dramatic winning goal deep into injury-time, though Sheehan’s memories of the match – and the identity of the Down match-winner that day – are somewhat hazy.
“The final itself, I remember very little of it… it’s a blur. That’s the first and only time I’ve played there so I’m looking forward to getting back.
“We had actually played Kerry in Newry in the first round and they beat us by the exact same scoreline we beat them in the final [3-16 to 2-17], though it wasn’t as dramatic as a few months later… there’s still a bit of controversy about who scored that goal at the end.
“The big man [Johnston] claims he got a touch but, well… Paul Braniff shot, ‘Magic’ went to put his hand to it, and ‘allegedly’ he got a touch. It ended up in the net anyway, which is all that mattered!
“That was in my second year on the panel and we won the Christy Ring. You think it’s going to happen every year, but it’s taken us six years to get back there.
“The average age of the team now is 23, but nothing fazes these young boys. They know they’re able to handle themselves, no matter who they’re playing against.”