IT’S hard to believe that it’s coming up on three and a half years since Tony Kelly last played in Croke Park – indeed, you nearly have to do a double take on that assertion, because it’s disbelieving, preposterous even.

Preposterous but true – the Hurler of the Year because of his exploits in this place in 2013 that ended with Clare lighting up the hurling world under the Croke Park lights has played here since.

The lights won’t be turned on this Friday until the football final between Dr Crokes and Slaughtneil, but by then Ballyea’s name could be up in lights.

It is already back Tiermaclane way and back in Ballyea’s heart, and well beyond that into Ballynacally, Lissycasey, Kilmihil and Cooraclare.

Good luck signs up everywhere.

For Pearse Lillis and Damian Burke in Cooraclare; in Kilmihil for captain Pearse Lillis, David Egan, Martin O’Leary and Pat Joe Connolly; in Lissycasey for Cathal Doohan and on it goes into Ballyncally, Darragh and Ballyea itself.

Barack Obama’s ‘Is Féidir Linn’ being put to an image of manager Robbie Hogan is a good one, but ‘There’s No Show Like a Joe Show’ is probably the pick of them and the one referenced by Kelly on a day out in Croke Park last week.

“Joe Neylon never played county hurling before but there’s the sign up,” he says. “It’s to get to acclimatized to things like that. It’s been a roller coaster since the county final. Getting to Croke Park with your club is special and it’s definitely one that will live long in the memory. It’s absolutely brilliant. There’s a buzz.

“When we got to the All-Ireland final in 2013 we got to see the bonanza around the county – everyone was going mad and excited. With your own club it’s different – everything is within a three or four mile radius and the big thing is the club players are exposed to it.

“Go back to the shop to get something and everybody is talking about the match. Go to the pub and everyone is talking about the match, even outside of Ballyea. It’s a thing to be wary of but it’s a thing to embrace as well,” he adds.

And how they’ve done that in their story so far that’s taken in the thrills and the spills in toppling some of the great pillars of club hurling along the way – storied Thurles Sarsfields and the even more storied Glen Rovers in Munster before beating former All-Ireland champions St Thomas’ in the penultimate round.

Now come Cuala – they don’t have the same pedigree of the above in terms of their back catalogue but with nine inter-county men in their ranks they’re the most formidable opposition yet.

“We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be a tough battle to beat Cuala,” admits Kelly. “Everyone in the club and the parish isn’t used to this – it’s a once off opportunity. It’s unknown territory. We came from nowhere in Ballyea. Even within Clare we wouldn’t have been seen to be in the top two or three last year to be in contention to win a county championship.”

“Go back to the shop to get something and everybody is talking about the match. Go to the pub and everyone is talking about the match, even outside of Ballyea. It’s a thing to be wary of but it’s a thing to embrace as well,” he adds.

And the Croke Park factor?

Kelly is one of seven who have played at the venue before – Paul Flanagan was team-mate and captain of the 2010 minor side, while Jack Browne and Gearóid O’Connell were with him on the 2011 minor team, with Brennan, Pearse Lillis and Martin O’Leary having line out with the footballers.

“You don’t know how fellas are going to react,” he admits, “how they’re going to respond to Croke Park for the first time. It’s probably the team that deals with the break [between the semi-final and final] and the surroundings on the day that is going to come out on top.

“We have leaders all over the panel. We have five inter-county hurlers. We have two or three more inter-county footballers. There’s a spread of leadership, no more so than Gary Brennan.

“He is one of our main leaders. He has played for Ireland and has played in Croke Park more recently than the rest of us. That’s one positive in this group. It’s not just left to a few – there are leaders all over the field.”

“The club finals over the last few years have been relatively one-sided – I don’t think that’s going to be the case on Paddy’s Day. I think it’s going to come down to the last  five or ten minutes.”

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