Captain Tony Kelly is eager to ensure that Clare are hurling into August and September – that chance comes this Wednesday when the Banner County put their provincial title on the line against Cork. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh reports.
ONCE there were three.
Anthony O’Riordan. Diarmaid Fitzgerald. Shane O’Neill.
Three names that don’t fly off the page when it comes to public recognition, albeit that O’Neill is a Munster senior medalist from a couple of weeks ago.
O’Riordan is Limerick, while Fitzgerald and O’Neill are Tipperary and Cork respectively.
Until last year they stood apart from all their peers in Munster where minor and under 21 captaincy is concerned.
O’Riordan’s time was 1984 and ’86; Fitzgerald had his turn in 2001 and ’04, while the final link in this holy trinity was provided by O’Neill in 2004 and ’07. They’re the triumvirate who captained their counties to Munster minor and Under 21 winning success.
It’s a select club that Clare became a part of last year thanks to Paul Flanagan – a club that Ballyea will belong to on the double and will be able to call their own on Wednesday if Clare can beat Cork.
It’s a remarkable thing – for a club to produce one captain to lead the county to success in two different grades is a great achievement. To do so twice would be remarkable.
Tony Kelly has that chance – yet another honour to come his way before he turns 21 next December.
Young hurler and hurler of the year from last year, All-Ireland senior medalist and All Star, Clare minor captain in 2011 when the Munster title was retained, Under 21 captain this year, senior captain the last day out against Wexford.
Yet for all the signal and singular honours that have come Tony Kelly’s way and so soon into his career, it’s not about the accolades, it’s still just about the hurling.
“You want to be hurling with the county throughout the summer. I wouldn’t say there’s added pressure, but you want it just as much as anything else,” says Kelly. “We just want to perform and win every day we go out – we don’t want our summer cut short in July. We want to be hurling into August in September,” he adds.
Therein lies a powerful motivation for this golden generation from Clare’s underage production line. For Kelly it started with when he was a 16 year old on the minor team of 2010 that beat Waterford in the Munster final and were unlucky losers to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.
Colm Galvin, who was also just 16 in 2010, was Kelly’s midfield partner that Munster final day in Thurles, while Aaron Cunningham, Seadna Morey and Cathal O’Connell are the other ever-presents through those five years of championship success, with this gang of five going for their fifth Munster medal in as many years this Wednesday.
“The five years have flown,” says Kelly. “A lot of people might be wondering how the likes of Colm Galvin or others are still under 21, because we’ve been around so long.
“Donal and Gerry gave us a chance at such a young level. We’re just trying to pay them back at the highest level we can and by winning trophies. It comes down to the work the management team have done with us, since we were 16 and 17. They threw us in at the deep end at that age.”
And, it doesn’t come any deeper than staring down the barrel of defeat in a big championship game – like Clare were against Tipperary in the semi-final two weeks ago, or two years ago against them in Kelly’s first Munster Under 21 final.
“We went four or five down at one stage against Tipp the last day, but when you’re out there you don’t really realize you’re behind and there’s so little time left,” he says.
“I think what really helped us against Tipp near the end was that the backbone of the team has been there since 2010 and we know we’re capable of coming back from any adversity. We showed that in coming back to win.
“Two years ago we missed a hatful of chances in the first half and came under a bit of pressure in the second half but Niall Arthur’s goal was the saviour for us at the end. We dug it out and the home venue played a part in that at the end of the game.”
Of course, the comforts of home await Kelly et al this Wednesday, but that hold no fears for Cork, just because it’s Cork’s way. Still, the confidence that’s in Clare and one that’s best exemplified by a Tony Kelly in full-flight will be expected this Wednesday.
“To have a Munster final at home is pretty special – there’s nothing like playing at home,” says Kelly. “We know what Cork capable of. We saw what their senior team produced last year and again this year – this Cork under 21 team beat a very good Waterford team in Walsh Park.
“But we only worry about our own performance – there’s no point worrying about the opposition or who we’re playing or who we’re marking. We’re just trying to up our performance from the Tipperary game and we feel that if we do that we’re in with a great chance of winning.”