Michael Fennelly happily putting up with club after county

The 32-year-old is loving life with Ballyhale Shamrocks after retiring from Kilkenny

Naomh Éanna’s Tom Stafford and Charlie McGurkin try to tackle Michael Fennelly of Ballyhale Shamrocks. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Naomh Éanna’s Tom Stafford and Charlie McGurkin try to tackle Michael Fennelly of Ballyhale Shamrocks. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

In the 11 months since announcing his intercounty retirement Michael Fennelly has never once looked beyond his next game, because he no longer needs to. After 12 years caught up in the pull and occasional drag between club and county hurling, his first and only care these days is with Ballyhale Shamrocks. 

Not that Fennelly necessarily planned it this way: he retired from the Kilkenny senior team last December, still only 32, not out of desire but necessity, and at that point wasn’t sure what future role he’d be able to play with Ballyhale. A series of injuries right down to his Achilles heel meant he was often looking two or three games down the line, wondering when or how he might be back, if at all. 

Back then Fennelly talked about “how your mind can get your body to go to certain places, but I feel my body has surpassed its limits at this time”. Fennelly certainly tested his limits in the middle-third of the hurling field; eight All-Irelands, nine Leinster titles, five National Leagues, three All-Stars, the Hurler of the Year award in 2011, etc. 

During that same time Fennelly often went on extended runs with Ballyhale, winning three All-Ireland club titles, four Leinster titles, and now seven Kilkenny county titles, including this year. Sunday’s AIB Leinster semi-final win over Wexford champions Naomh Éanna – with Ballyhale scoring 6-21 over the hour – now sets up the chance of winning a fifth provincial title with the club, and while Fennelly is certainly not looking beyond that game, laying down his county hurl has clearly helped him extend his club game well into the foreseeable future. 

“Exactly,” said Fennelly. “Obviously it’s not as hard on the body and the body is surviving. Normally I’d come back from Kilkenny and I’d have a couple of things wrong with me but thankfully I’m getting a bit of a run now with the lads to try and avoid injury. The physio Robbie Lodge knows my body well too, we’re keeping things going an awful lot better. 

‘A new experience’

“The journey of the Leinster club championship is super, I remember my first one back in’07, it was all a new experience, a new journey, travelling around the country with these games is huge, and now we’re doing it again and it’s great for everyone in the club.” 

It helps too that the man managing Ballyhale is Henry Shefflin, Fennelly’s former team-mate for club and county, who also understands the needs of the former intercounty body: “It’s not that I can pick and choose sessions, but manage it better. Henry also knows very well in terms of what I can’t do. Things are good, there’s a good buzz in the club, and there’s a bit of freshness there. Young Evan Shefflin, Henry’s nephew, is beside me going fierce well and Henry’s other nephews Brian and Eoin Cody, the two of them are going fierce well so lads are stepping now. My cousins are there too, Adrian and Darren Mullen, they’re still quite young but a year or two at senior adds massive experience.” 

Still central to the team however is his brother Colin Fennelly, plus TJ Reid and Joe Holden, who before Sunday’s game still managed to travel to Australia to play with Kilkenny against Galway in Sydney, an exhibition game as played as part of an Irish cultural festival – adding another pull and drag between club and county hurling. 

That’s actually a sensitive subject in the county right now – Kilkenny manager Brian Cody declaring more than once in recent weeks that a growing elitism around the county scene is threatening to suffocate the club, and Kilkenny are as much in danger of suffering as anyone else. Kilkenny have traditionally been one of the better counties at this balancing act, only when asked for his view on it Shefflin didn’t come across too ruffled. 

“I think during the summer yeah (it’s an issue),” said Shefflin. “But if you look at it now, I think this competition has been brilliant, it’s amazing how many people are saying every week how great the matches are. 

“It is just about finding the balance. But I see it from my lads here, and the county players that we have, they are first and foremost club players, and I think that’s very important, and that’s what I’m seeing in my lads.” 

For Fennelly, meanwhile, winning a fifth Leinster title with Ballyhale four years after his last is all the motivation he needs – Dublin champions Ballyboden St Enda’s standing in their way on Sunday week (that game fixed for Dr Cullen Park in Carlow). 

“To win another county final was a huge thing, but when Leinster opens up, it opens up. We’re focussing really hard on this. But I wouldn’t say bonus, yet. If you win it it’d be a nice bonus but we’re there now and any time you get to a final they have to be there to be won, so we’ll be gunning for that.”

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