Down relishing long-awaited shot at 2A admits goalkeeper Stephen Keith. Picture by Philip Walsh
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Kerry v Down (tomorrow, Tralee, 1pm – live on Kerry GAA TV)
TRIM - mere mention is enough to send a shiver through Stephen Keith's spine. It was there, in the County Meath town, that Down were sent to a form of hurling purgatory from which there seemed to be no escape.
Nine years have passed since Wicklow sealed Down's fate following a hugely disappointing campaign that finished with one point from five games, not to mention a few hidings along the way.
That relegation play-off was the Ardsmen's last outing as a Division 2A side. Three times they put themselves in the frame for a move back up the ladder, three times they fell short until finally, at the fourth time of asking, Ronan Sheehan's side edged out Derry to secure promotion last October.
Keith was only new to the number one jersey back in 2012, having taken over from the evergreen Graham Clarke. Clarke, in turn, had succeeded another Keith – Stephen's father, Noel, in his pomp regarded as one of the top 'keepers in the country.
Now 34, he still winces slightly at the memory of what happened in Trim, but moreso the missed opportunities along the way and the galling 2B final defeats to Wicklow (2014), Armagh (2016) and Mayo (2018).
“You wouldn't have thought then it would take so long for us to get back,” says the Ballycran bricklayer.
“That's what I was trying to say to the young boys going into the League final against Derry last year – you need to really go for it, grasp this with both hands because it could pass you by. Nine years doesn't be long going on.
“When you miss promotion like that, it really does suck the life out of you. No disrespect to Wicklow, Armagh or Mayo, but I honestly believe we had the players within Down to with those League finals.
“On the day… I don't know. It was just soul destroying.”
Now 34, time and experience have helped heal those wounds while the arrival of baby daughter Aoife a couple of weeks ago put life, and hurling's place in it, further into perspective.
“It's all going well, we're just getting used to the lack of sleep now…”
Yet Down captain Keith was just as excited as any of the fresher faces on the panel to get back to county training last month, invigorated by the challenge ahead and the prospect of a step up in class.
He showed that he still has a huge amount to offer between the sticks throughout 2020 too, particularly in the unforgettable Christy Ring Cup semi-final win over Offaly in Newry when saving three penalties before firing home the winner.
If Carslberg did shootouts…
“Ah it was unbelievable - just a surreal kind of a day.
“I didn't even know the match was going to go to extra-time never mind penalties. It was only when the umpire said at the end ‘now's your chance to shine' and I was like ‘what's happening?'
“Ronan and the management team took it out of our hands, they asked five lads did they want to hit them and what order they wanted to go in, and the five lads were happy enough. Thankfully it turned out alright.”
They may have fallen short in the final against Kildare eight days later but, with promotion and a crack at the Joe McDonagh Cup already secured, the year's main objectives had already been achieved.
And Sheehan has made no bones about his priorities looking ahead to the delayed 2021 campaign, with securing their hard-fought Division 2A status paramount.
Down set off for the Kingdom this morning, a clash with the defeated McDonagh finalists at Tralee's Austin Stack Park tomorrow afternoon the kind of acid test the Ardsmen have been craving.
“We know we're stepping up in levels but that's what we've wanted. It's where Down hurling needs to be,” said Keith, one of the few survivors from the dramatic 2013 Christy Cup final win over Kerry.
“They have really pushed on in the last few years and we know they're a big, physically strong team. A lot of people said after last year's Christy Ring how big and strong they thought Kildare were compared to Down… at the minute there is no ‘Magic' [Gareth Johnston], no Paul Braniff. We are a small team, but there's ways around that too. I don't think that will stop us competing in 2A.
“We have to be realistic, if we stay in the League this year which I honestly believe we can and will do, then we can look to push on and try and bridge that gap. It would be lovely to be pushing for a League final in a year or two, whether I'm there for that or not.”
Former Dublin star Ryan O'Dwyer has been brought in to try and add extra physicality to the pace and panache already there, and his influence could tell in the weeks to come.
Tomorrow Down will be without the experience of Conor Woods - suspended for the red card picked up late in last year's Christy Ring Cup final - while Tim Prenter, superb in that decider, isn't fit to start but could feature at some stage.
Down: S Keith; M Hughes, C Taggart, J McManus; G Hughes, M Conlon, L Savage; D Hughes, C Egan; P Og McCrickard, P Sheehan, R Costello; D Sands, E Sands, O Mac Manus