Veteran Keith hoping Down can grab Division One opportunity with both hands
STEPHEN Keith didn’t think the opportunity would ever come. Raised on stories of father Noel’s heroics between the sticks during Down’s early ’90s glory days and All-Ireland semi-final appearances at Croke Park, his own county career took a little longer to catch fire.
Graham Clarke held the number one jersey for the 15 years between the two Keiths, with the 2013 Christy Ring crown coming in Stephen’s first as regular custodian.
The years between were seldom straightforward, however, as the Ardsmen struggled to escape the clutches of Division 2B. Still, he soldiered on.
And now, at 35, the Ballycran man is facing into the biggest game of his Down career – with the promise of plenty more to come should they defeat Westmeath in Saturday’s 2A decider at Semple Stadium.
“I probably did, to be honest,” said Keith when asked if he thought such a golden opportunity would prove elusive before he decided to hang up the hurl at county level.
“It took us nearly 10 years to get out of 2B, now within two years we’re 70 minutes away from Division One. It’s massive, but when something so big is within touching distance, you want to make sure you get over the line.
“You want to play at the highest standard you can, no matter what age you are. If you’re just content to stay down the league, you’re in the wrong place. As a group we’re ambitious enough, and from my own point of view I’ll not have too many more chances to play against the likes of Limerick and Kilkenny.
“I’d love to be able to say I’d played Division One hurling before I retired, and it would be brilliant for the whole hurling community in Down, and the young ones coming through, to see those counties coming to Ballycran.
“That’s a big thing, because when Down were in Division One before when I was younger, you had Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway all coming at different times… you don’t forget the like of that.”
Keith has already played at Semple Stadium – regarded as the home of hurling - once before, when Ulster lost out to Munster in the 2016 Railway Cup.
And the opportunity to go back to Thurles was a welcome surprise when the 2A final was confirmed as the curtain-raiser to the Division One showdown between Cork and Waterford.
“It’s a brave run for people to come and watch a match at a quarter to five on a Saturday evening, but hopefully we get as much support as we can. It’d be great to see as much red and black as possible.
“I was probably expecting Parnell Park, but we’re looking forward to Semple Stadium. You ask any player where they’d want to play and the two answers would be Croke Park or Thurles.
“But it can’t change things for us. Being honest, I couldn’t care less if the match had been in Westmeath - we’re just delighted to be in it.
“We have a leadership group within the panel and we’ve just been just talking about trying to keep everything as normal as possible. Our attitude is this is game six, that’s how we have to approach it.”
Part of the reason for that is Down’s recent record on the bigger stage, having fallen to Meath then Kildare in consecutive Christy Ring Cup finals at Croke Park in 2019 and 2020.
With another few years under their belt, the younger members of the panel then have now developed into seasoned operators at inter-county level, and captain Keith hopes those experiences will stand to them when they cross the white line on Saturday.
“The last two days we were at Croke Park we probably played the occasion rather than the match - hopefully this will be different.
“There was a time I could probably have named you 10 players who should have been there but weren’t. At the minute the majority, if not all the best players in Down are playing county hurling – and they want to be there, they want to improve.
“We have a group now that’s been there three or four years, everybody’s comfortable around each other, the management and coaches do a great job. We’re really happy with where we’re at.”