Hurler of the Year Kelly savouring the ample rewards of an extraordinary season

Not yet 20, the young Clare man can look back with pride and satisfaction on a memorable 12 months

If distance lends perspective, Tony Kelly has a crystal-clear view of his annus mirabilis. Newly arrived in Shanghai with the rest of the GAA-GPA hurling All Stars, Clare's Hurler of the Year is asked about the extraordinary achievements of 2013.

Neither is ‘extraordinary’ an excitable exaggeration. Kelly’s still not 20 and has ended the year with senior and under-21 All-Ireland medals, both Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year awards plus an All Star.

“The perfect end to a perfect season,” he says. “Not many of us thought we’d be in Shanghai at the end of the year. It tops off a fantastic year for us.

“You have the likes of Cork here who we’ve battled five or six times throughout the year so it’s good to sit back and enjoy our own company. We’ve been long enough trying to cut the heads off each other in league and championship.”

From a memorable year, he selects the outstanding event.

“The main highlight was the homecoming in Ennis. It was outrageous, unbelievable – 30,000 inside in Ennis. We came to Newmarket, Cratloe, Sixmilebridge before that but by God when we got to Ennis it was something unreal.

“That was something Davy used throughout the year, he kept showing us their homecoming in 1995, ’97. He kept saying he wanted this for us, that if we ever experienced it, it would be the best night of our lives – and it was.”

After a hurling year during which the game’s hierarchy was radically realigned, the question for Clare is whether they were successful because of the decline of the three counties who had contested every All-Ireland for the previous four years or whether the emergence of their very young and talented team means that they will dominate hurling in the medium term.

From a personal point of view, Kelly knows that he will carry a high level of expectation into next year, little more than 18 months after his championship debut.

The bonus
"You will have to deal with it. It is part and parcel of the game now but the thing about Clare is we haven't just one or two forwards, we have six forwards and that's the bonus.

“If you take one forward out of it, another lad can step up to the plate like Shane O’Donnell did in the All-Ireland final and that’s what we have been trying to get all year – that if one forward has an off day that another one is going to step up and hopefully it will be the same for next year as well.”

Clare’s All-Ireland was also distinguished by the quality of the drawn final and replay and for the county the sense of relief that having dominated the first match and fallen behind with just seconds left on the clock they were sprung from the trap by a most unlikely saviour, corner back Domhnall O’Donovan on the wrong side of the field and scoring the first point of his inter-county career,

“When they got the point and the lineball near the end I thought that was curtains and if you’d the choice of flicking the ball to anyone – there’s 34 lads on the panel and Dunny would be 35; I’ll tell you that much.

“But it was a great score and thank God for the point because we wouldn’t have won it only for him so a lot of credit goes to him for that.”

The replay still had to be won and although Kelly isn’t sure that the team were particularly suited to Croke Park, he does feel that they approached the matches with a youthful lack of inhibition.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t answer that question,” he says in response to being asked was there something about Croke Park that inspired the team.

“Most people asked were we nervous because we were so young but if you watched before the replay, I suppose an hour before the game we were beating the ball up in the air like a bunch of young lads.

“I remember looking over at Davy and few of the older lads were saying, ‘Jeez these younger lads – do they not realise what they’re going to be playing in an hour’s time’.

"But that's this year and I suppose if we got to an All-Ireland final in five or six years' time it could be totally different and we could approach it in a totally different way. I suppose we're lucky that we're all so young and maybe don't realise what we've achieved or what we were even playing in so in that regard it was unknown territory for a lot of us.

Exciting period
He's reluctant to state that Clare's style with its emphasis on pace and technical ability will be copied by others and acknowledges that his team will also develop in what looks like an exciting period for the inter-county game.

“I think every team has their own style. If you look at Tipp and Kilkenny they can hurl but they had physical strength as well whereas this Clare team, we were young and it will take its time and take us another few years to develop and we were all about pace and skill and all about hurling and I don’t think many teams are going to copy us.

"Cork are similar to us and always base their teams on skill and speed and fast ball to the forwards and every county plays to its strengths. So I don't think the likes of Tipp and Galway or Kilkenny will be changing their games to beat us because its wide open and anyone can win it and that makes it exciting for next season."

Age: 19
Club: Ballyea.
Munster MHC: 2010 and '11.
Munster U21 HC: 2012 and '13.
All-Ireland U21 HC: 2012 and '13.
All-Ireland SHC: 2013
GAA-GPA All Star: 2013
Young hurler of the year: 2013
Hurler of the year: 2013