'There's 15 or 16 boys pushing our county Down team out, the rest of them just come and go as they please'
Christy Ring Cup Group One: Down v Derry (today, 3pm, Portaferry)
IT’S an age-old story, but one that doesn’t get any easier for Down’s number one to comprehend. The son of Noel Keith, considered one of Ireland’s top goalkeepers at his peak, Stephen Keith has always followed his father’s footsteps with a sense of pride.
He well remembers going to All-Ireland semi-finals in Croke Park at a time when Antrim and Down were duelling for Ulster crowns and the right to mix it with the country’s finest.
It’s some change now. As it stands, there is no longer an Ulster hurling Championship, and Down are competing in hurling’s third tier. They have won the Christy Ring Cup before, beating Kerry on a glorious summer’s day at Croke Park six years ago, but it feels like a long time since.
“We pulled that one out of the fire,” he smiles.
“We were in added time. I mind I was at the Canal End getting ready to take the puck out, I looked up and there was 72 minutes or something gone and I just thought ‘f**k, we’re beat here’.
“I hit it out, Paul Braniff caught it, hit a shot, it dropped short and ‘Magic’ [Gareth Johnston] flicked it to the net. From one second thinking you were beat to winning the thing.
“It was mad…”
The two finalists have plotted different courses ever since. The Kingdom picked themselves up and have kicked on impressively.
They are now pushing hard in the Joe McDonagh Cup and desperate for a chance to make a mark in Munster. Down, meanwhile, have drifted along.
Of the 15 player named to face Derry in today’s Christy Ring opener, only four remain from 2013. Keith is one, alongside Matt Conlon, Danny Toner and Paul Sheehan.
And the 32-year-old doesn’t need a second invitation to outline the reasons why continuity of selection continues to evade the Ardsmen.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s for a simple reason – all the best players in Down aren’t playing for the county,” says the Ballycran man.
“We can’t get them out. I don’t know why. Even at my own club, there’s three or four players should be starting for the county who aren’t there at the minute because of other commitments – work, family... it’s just the way it is.
“It’s hard because we’re struggling for numbers - boys are coming there, they’re messing about and senior players are coming to management and saying ‘what’s going on, what are these boys at?’ More or less saying if they’re not going to come, tell them to clear off.
“But we don’t have the players - we need them. That’s where our hands are tied. There’s 15 or 16 boys pushing our county Down team out, the rest of them just come and go as they please. That’s where we are at the minute.
“The annoying thing is, when we all get together, we can play.”
Keith is also quick to dismiss any suggestion that the intense rivalry between the three Ards clubs – Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry – plays any part in the apathy towards the county side.
“Not at all,” he adds.
“I’m friendly with Portaferry and Ballygalget boys, we get on well with each other. Don’t get me wrong, come August/September we’ll be knocking seven shades of shite out of each other, but I don’t think that’s anything to do with it.
“I think it’s just a culture thing. Young ones just don’t want the hard work.”
It is a problem that has also blighted Derry in years gone by but, as they head for Portaferry this afternoon, midfielder Brian Og McGilligan insists there has been plenty of competition for places thus far.
“This year there has been excellent buy-in – look at the amount of Slaughtneil lads for example who are involved this year,” said McGilligan, who will also be part of the Derry football panel when Damian McErlain’s men take on Tyrone tomorrow.
“It’s been a massive bonus for us, and when you look at the number of clubs represented in our panel there at the moment, there’s a huge spread.”
Down: S Keith; T Murray, C Taggart, D Mallon; M Fisher, M Conlon, M Patterson; J McManus, D Toner; P Sheehan, C O’Prey, T Prenter; D Sands, E Sands, O McManus
Derry: S Kelly; C Kelly, S Cassidy, P Kelly; L Hinphey, M McGrath, C Waldron; M McGuigan, B Og McGilligan; P Cleary, S McGuigan, T Brady; R Mullan, M Craig, C O’Doherty