This weekend served up many incredible performances in hurling. Tony Kelly, Richie Hogan and Joe Canning all reminded the world of their genius. But none of those hurlers can claim to have made history like Stephen Keith of Down. The Down captain was the winning goalkeeper and the scorer of the deciding goal in the first intercounty hurling penalty shootout, as Down shocked Offaly in Newry, 2-20 to 1-13 and then 3-2 on penalties
Keith’s heroics proved Down with memorable result against a county that won an All-Ireland 22 years ago. It also means Down have been promoted to the Joe McDonagh Cup next year. Not that penalties were really on anyone's mind during the match.
‘I thought it was just going to another five minutes of extra time each way when the whistle blew,’ the Ballycran man said over a phonecall Sunday afternoon. ‘Then the umpire said ‘now’s your time to shine’. I said 'what do you mean?' He said ‘straight to penalties!’
Perhaps that old chestnut ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is overrated. Because what happened next was Roy of the Rovers stuff from Keith amid abominable conditions. He stopped three of Offaly’s five penalties, including one from his opposite netminder Stephen Corcoran, before burying the fifth and decisive penalty in the upper right corner.
Cue ecstatic scenes.
What a day for @OfficialDownGAA hurlers and in particular goalkeeper and captain Stephen Keith!!
Keith made some great saves in the shootout before banging home the winner, sending his county to the Christy Ring Cup final
Enjoy @OfficialDownGAA 🔴⚫ pic.twitter.com/qpVByWD9DR
— PáircTV (@PaircTV) November 14, 2020
‘The manager [Ronan Sheehan] had a chat with the selectors and then he came back and he said, ‘these are the lads we want to hit them and this is the order you’re hitting them in’. He called me out last. I was hoping if I did my job well I wouldn’t have to hit the last one,’ Keith said, modestly.
There was a lot of talk ahead of the Championship about how unfair penalties would be on losing teams. Having been involved on the winning side, Keith and his Down teammates have no complaints.
‘I suppose we’re happy now because we won on penalties. Yesterday we were such big underdogs. Usually underdogs only get one chance at it. Maybe if it had gone to play after yesterday’s match, it’d be a different story. We’re happy to get the job on the day. ‘
While much of the online commentary after the match focused on another depressing defeat for Offaly, Down were deserving winners and advance to the Christy Ring Cup final next weekend against Kildare. (Both finalists are promoted to Joe McDonagh action next year.) Down have been in brilliant form since hurling returned: they also won the rescheduled League 2B final last month, beating Derry 2-16 to 0-17.
'I never thought the league final would happen. It was set for around Paddy's Day weekend and it was called off a few days before,' Keith says.
Hurling in Down has traditionally been dominated by three clubs - Ballycran, Portaferry and Ballygalget - but results like yesterday just prove how much potential exists is in the county, and indeed the province of Ulster. Antrim are flying at the moment, topping the table in the Joe McDonagh Cup. Results like yesterday show the potential in Ulster hurling.
‘The big three clubs would be the backbone of the panel but there's some great players involved as well from Leitrim, Bredagh, Newry Shamrocks. There's a real good mix,' Keith said. 'We know there's some very good sides up in Joe McDonagh but we think we’ll be able to hold our own.’
Down will be massive underdogs next year as well but results like yesterday prove the quality is there in the county. And it's clear the belief is growing as well.