Hurling and camogie

'Offaly will be gunning for us': Down's Paul Sheehan relishing Faithful challenge

Paul Sheehan (front left) and the Down players celebrate last year's dramatic Christy Ring Cup semi-final victory over Offaly. Picture by Tony Bagnall
Neil Loughran

A FEW things have changed since Down last faced Offaly on an unforgettable evening in Newry seven months ago. The Faithful, under former Kilkenny star Michael Fennelly, have licked their wounds and come back full of fire.

Joe McDonagh Cup counties Meath and Kerry were both wiped out in the opening two weeks, margins of 16 and 21 points a serious sign of intent before victory over Carlow consolidated their place at the head of the pile in Division 2A.

Fennelly has re-energised his panel, bringing in new, eager faces as some of the old guard exited the stage. Yet the hurt of what happened in Newry last November will be further grist to the mill when the counties collide again in O’Connor Park on Sunday.

For Down, and for Paul Sheehan, the wheel has kept turning too. The Ardsmen have exceeded the expectations of some already, extinguishing any early fears of an immediate return to 2B by bouncing back from defeat to the Kingdom with welcome wins over Carlow and Wicklow.

At the time of that dramatic Christy Ring Cup semi-final penalty shootout win, Sheehan was still feeling his way back into action. A cruciate ligament – sustained in Newry Shamrocks’ 2019 junior championship triumph against Ballela - had left the 30-year-old sidelined.

What made it harder to take was the fact it was a road he had already walked.

“I did it when I was 19 as well, the same knee.

“When it happened the second time round it didn’t really hit me until the day after because we won. I was back in the club that night, flying about on crutches, there was a few beers on the go.

But I saw our physio, Grainne Murray, the next day - my mum took me over - and after she did the tests and told me, there’s no point in lying, I burst into tears.

“I’d done it before, I knew what it took to get back. But look, nobody died, injury is part and parcel of sport and it gave me a lot of time to reflect on things - like how much I do love playing. It made me more determined to get back and when I did I was in a good place mentally and physically.”

Gradually brought back into the county fold, the instruction was clear – “20-25 minutes, max” – as Sheehan came off the bench in the promotion-clinching Division 2B decider against Derry and throughout the Christy Ring run.

“That was hard at times - you’re thinking you’re back, you think you’re good to go but you have to do it in stages. I wasn’t able to go gung-ho. It can be frustrating when you’re watching on but you have to be smart about it.”

He got more time against Offaly, having been introduced in the 52nd minute before the game moved into extra-time. To play a part in one of the county’s biggest days in recent decades was “something special”, he admits, even if he was one of those to miss when penalties came about.

“’Viper’ still reminds me about that…”

‘Viper’, aka goalkeeper Stephen Keith, has special privilege where that particular game is concerned. The Ballycran man saved three penalties before lashing home the winner to spark scenes of wild celebration among the Down players.

Sheehan, though, knows they will be facing a different Offaly side on Sunday – and one with designs on levelling up the score.

“Ah look, it was brilliant. Coming back from injury, and then being able to come on and contribute, or do something to help us over the line, was special.

“But that game counts for nothing now. There seems to have been a few personnel changes from the Offaly team we played, there’s a few young boys in there, boys with experience of playing in Leinster U21 Championships and running Kilkenny and Wexford very close.

“Offaly didn’t become a bad team overnight, they always produce good hurlers and good teams. They had a bad run of form, yes we beat them on a wet and windy winter day in Newry. It was great, but they’ll be gunning for us.”

The cameo appearances off the bench are a thing of the past as Sheehan has been restored to the starting 15. Going to Tullamore, being pitted against counties like Offaly and still being in with a shot at promotion to Division One, these are the moments you learn to appreciate when they’re temporarily taken away.

“This is why you train, why you put so much into it,” he says,

“You want to play in these big games and really test yourself and see where you’re at. This is why you play the game.”

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Hurling and camogie