Rob Hennelly much more than a safe pair of hands for Mayo

Many times during his long career the Breaffy man has stood up to be counted for the county

They have been to this place before, some of them, when they were little more than kids. In 2008, Mayo and Tyrone met in the All-Ireland minor final, a low-register classic which turned epic.

A draw in Croke Park, extra-time in the replay in Pearse Park, Longford, a week later and a scintillating five point-turn from Kyle Coney turned the day northwards.

It might have been the culmination of the Harte era of Tyrone football: minor and senior All-Ireland champions, the Ballygawley roundabout the still point of the turning world.

A scattering of the teenagers from that day will line out in this evening's All-Ireland final, including Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte from Tyrone and Aidan O'Shea for Mayo. Rob Hennelly was playing that day, too, and his performances caught the eye of those watching in the crowd and the press box after Conor O'Neill finished an extra-time goal for the Ulstermen.


"That it came off goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly fumbling Paddy McNeice's skyscraper proved the cruellest of ironies," wrote Gavin Cummiskey on these pages. "Hennelly shoulders no blame here as on three occasions he bailed out his team-mates, and one brilliant reflex save will never be forgotten."

The summation reads now like a neat prophesy of Hennelly's future senior career. He is in veteran country now, a decade of senior service under his belt during which he has been cast in all the stereotypes of sports critique. He sometimes found himself under intense scrutiny because he emerged in the same period as another stellar goalkeeper, David Clarke.

But when the teams stand for the national anthem just before five o’clock, one thing is beyond doubt. Mayo would not be in this year’s All-Ireland final without Rob Hennelly’s intervention.

The Howitzer free he scored in the 78th minute of the semi-final to level the game against Dublin at 0-13 apiece is already one of the emblematic plays of the season.

There is still a degree of confusion about why referee Conor Lane ordered it to be retaken. One theory is that Stephen Coen was being called to the sideline to be replaced by Daragh Coen and that the referee was busy with that piece of housekeeping. For his part, Coen isn't clear.

Own battle

“I was probably just so concerned about my own battle that I didn’t see the board coming up. If that was the reason it was retaken, great,” he says cheerfully now of the moment.

“I’d like to take credit for it but I can’t really. Maybe I just didn’t want Darren to come on for me! In fairness, they knew I wasn’t going to kick a score so they said bring on the big man.”

Coen stood on the sideline to watch Hennelly stand over the ball and drive it over the bar to edge Dublin, the champions perpetual, into 20 minutes of added time in which Mayo’s energy was irresistible.

What was overlooked in the frantic aftermath of Mayo’s victory was Hennelly’s mindset in that minute between the first attempt and the second. He had, after all, kicked the original free well wide. And he had a full minute to stand there and think about that while the tension rose around him like a tide. To recollect his composure and correct the original trajectory and still find the requisite distance; it was a remarkable show of resilience and poise under huge pressure.

“He’s a super player and a great teammate and a great squad member, so I’m delighted for him,” Coen says.

“And all the lads who performed well, but he’s just been a great man in my whole career for the last eight years and that will continue for as long as he plays. I like to think most of the fellas here are very strong mentally and we help each other out as much as possible even in the good days and bad days – but yeah, he’s an animal man; a great fella and just delighted to see him doing well.”

Clarke’s retirement in January brought a close to the Clarke/Hennelly debate which has featured through the story of Mayo’s decade. On the surface, having two excellent goalkeepers is a happy problem for a senior county team.

But from James Horan through to Stephen Rochford and back to Horan's second term, the selection split opinion. It came to a head in 2016 when Rochford decided to replace Clarke, who had an All-Star calibre championship, with Hennelly for the All-Ireland final replay against Dublin, a brave decision which polarised opinion and became infamous when, as a tactical switch, it just didn't work.

Hennelly was black-carded early in the second half after hauling down Dean Rock for a penalty, which Clarke, returned to the field as a replacement, was unable to stop. It was a big point in the match in a match crowded with big points but it was the source of speculation afterwards.

When Ray Dempsey watched the drama unfolding, he couldn't help but think of his days coaching Hennelly in that 2008 minor season.

Freak coincidence

“Rob was great at shot stopping and his goalkeeping abilities were tremendous.”

For such a high-profile player, Hennelly is seldom heard or seen outside when he isn’t keeping goal for Mayo. There’s a different Rob Hennelly story, one in which after dropping out of the panel in 2012, he elects not to return at Horan’s request in the summer of 2013.

Leaving the panel was something he later admitted to regretting hugely but he thought his chance was gone. It might have been, too, but for the freak coincidence of injuries to both Clarke and reserve goalkeeper Kenneth O’Malley before the Connacht final that year.

Horan invited Hennelly back in and a storming series of performances saw him keep his place through to the All-Ireland final, finishing the season with an All-Star nomination.

It was probably then that the debate began to quicken across Mayo. Some blamed Hennelly for his positioning for Bernard Brogan’s second goal in that 2013 final; others could point to the three exceptional saves he produced to keep the team in the game. But for reasons beyond either man’s control, it became an either-or conversation.

"David Clarke had justifiably great respect in the county and a great support base," says Martin Carney, the former Mayo player.

“And all of a sudden Rob came along as a rival. It was a very emotional assessment rather than based on reason in many respects. Go back to the national league final a few years ago and Rob made a superb save that maybe helped in Mayo winning. They were equally good shot stoppers. Rob has a superb kick out. Where David had the advantage was that he was very secure in the air.”

The debate was always external. While Clarke always kept a steadfastly low profile through his Mayo career, he did say this about his relationship with Hennelly in the build up to the 2016 final.

“There’s the greatest respect between the two of us. He has worked me really hard. I’ve had some great battles with him over the last number of years. He’s been in, I’ve been in. Different managers. We are our own little unit. We room together. We get on well. We train hard and work hard and if one of us gets the nod we give each other great support.”

Carney lives in Breaffy and has known Hennelly since primary school. He was in the same class as Aidan O'Shea and he remembers them as a group which included Peter Dravins and David Gavin, the former Mayo minor and U-21 player who died after a tragic drowning accident in Canada three years ago. Gavin also featured in that 2008 All-Ireland minor final, coming into the game in the 46th minute.

Great friends

“They were all great friends. And you would see them playing all the time,” Carney says. “And terrific footballers – David was a smashing footballer. The big thing Rob had over a lot of others at club and beyond was a wonderful kick-out from a young age. He had a great strike of a ball with a beautiful trajectory on it.

“And he would look for Aidan game on game. They just developed, apart from the friendship, a great understanding on the pitch. You know, he’s just a fine lad who has shown immense courage and single-mindedness, I feel, to stay involved in the game considering some of the minefields he has had to go through.”

Resilience has been his calling card. Three years would pass before he would face Dublin in Croke Park after the 2016 ordeal, a February league game in which Mayo underwhelmed in general. The game was memorable because of six point-blank saves by Hennelly. That May, they ended up winning the league title against Kerry in Croke Park in a thrilling game which hinged on another superb injury-time save by Hennelly.

I know a few of his harshest critics have had to tip the cap and to acknowledge his qualitie

By then, Mayo were entering a new phase and the public could appreciate what they had in both Clarke and Hennelly. Then Clarke bowed out and Hennelly was the automatic number one. His free against Dublin last month drew a line under any doubts as to his qualities.

“It has,” Carney says. “I know a few of his harshest critics have had to tip the cap and to acknowledge his qualities. That is why it was so pleasing. The character he has shown to go back year after year took huge character.”

This evening, he faces a mirror opposite in Niall Morgan. Both men are talented shot-stoppers with superb kicking facility and a reputation for delivering mammoth, long-distance scores.

“Rob has taken on the mantle of the more distant frees now that Cillian [O’Connor] isn’t available We are lucky We are lucky to have players of that quality taking the frees next Saturday,” says Dempsey, who believes this is one of the most finely balanced senior football finals the championship has produced.

“I think Tyrone can win the All-Ireland and I think Mayo can win the All-Ireland. It is who can find that bit more inspiration. They both played huge All-Ireland semi-finals. It will be who is the cleverest and has the most courage and goes for it. They are both developing a bit.”

It’s a fair assessment. Both goalkeepers will have a big say. And after everything, they know this in Mayo about Rob Hennelly now. He has stood up to be counted. Many times.