Michael Fennelly’s one imponderable in a stellar career
Stretched his endurance as far as possible, but wonders might it have started earlier
Michael Fennelly: “2011 was a big year for me in terms of getting Hurler of the Year and a goal in the All-Ireland.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It’s hard to detect too much regret in Michael Fennelly’s reflections on a stellar hurling career. It was cursed with injury, but he managed to cajole his body into somehow finding intervals of capability that prolonged his presence on the Kilkenny team.
He says himself that he would be there all day were he to itemise all of the ailments that beset him, but some of the significant ones were flat feet, persistent back problems, cartilage, Achilles, all to the beat of an (hereditary) arthritis diagnosis when he was just 22. He has to have a hard bed otherwise he won’t sleep.
Retirement at 32 – although he will still play for his club Ballyhale – is premature by most standards, but he believes that were it not for a career change – after he had decided to study sports science – his inter-county days would have been fewer than12 years.
“Actually I don’t think I would have lasted as long if I didn’t go back and do my masters in 2013 and into a lecturing job [at Limerick IT] where I have flexibility on hours. With the bank I was nine-to-five and come 5.30 you were wrecked.
“I have summers off with the lecturing as well, so I think that kept me going for longer, to be honest. I’ve been very fortunate in that side of things. I have an arthritis condition, that’s at the heart of all this, and I’m very flat-footed in my feet.
“All that pounding going through your feet, and if your body is not taking the right load other areas of the body will get hit, and the arthritis condition is in my knee and lower back. I have bulging discs, and if I go on with the list I’d be here all day.”
Call it a day
It was no real surprise when he called time on his Kilkenny career a few days after Christmas, the prospect of serious injury and further debilitation convincing him that he should call it a day.
His ability to – literally – hit the ground running in recent years after months out managing injury was all the more remarkable because his game was about energy, ball-winning and running.
If he is satisfied that he could not have stretched his playing days any farther at the end, he does harbour questions as to whether he might have got them under way that bit more quickly.
“I wish the first couple of years that I’d jumped in the deep end a bit more. I think I would have told you that before. I came into the set-up in 2006, and was probably a bit naïve and not really aware of what was involved. I was playing against players I would have been shouting on from Hill 16 maybe a year or two before this – fellas I looked up to as role models, and here I am playing against them. I was naïve maybe in not challenging them more.
“That’s something I regret and not getting myself on that team earlier. Whether I was good enough or not – maybe I wasn’t – that’s the other side of it. I wish I had gone more hell-for-leather at that time.”
That opening half of his eight-All-Ireland career looks under-powered by comparison to the second, but again injury cast a shadow. He didn’t play in the finals of 2006 and 2008, and was restricted to coming off the bench in 2007 and 2009 albeit as captain in the latter year.
This under-achievement casts a curious light for him on the massive disappointment of Kilkenny’s failure in 2010 to become the only county ever to win five successive All-Irelands.
“I missed the 2006 final; I didn’t get to play in that game. In 2008 I didn’t come on either…I had a scaphoid injury that I was caught up with. So for me the five-in-a-row had nothing to do with me; I’ll be honest about it. Even the four-in-a-row, for me, I had to be playing in those games.
“I came on at half-time in 2007, in 2008 I played all the league games, was playing really well, started the Championship, so everything was flying and then I got the scaphoid injury and that cost me about four months, five months. So that set me back.
“In 2009, I struggled a bit, got mumps then as well in around the league final against Tipperary. Again I would have struggled from there on, so there were a few hiccups like that which occurred. If they hadn’t I might have had a smoother transition but that’s the way sport goes, and you have to take it on the chin.”
If anything he sees 2010 as the year in which he made his breakthrough and was nominated for Hurler of the Year. Twelve months later there’s no ambiguity.
“2011 was a big year for me in terms of getting Hurler of the Year and a goal in the All-Ireland, and capping it off with Hurler of the Year and an All-Star, so that was a super year.”
“There’s satisfaction. I think the last couple of years have been bonus years for me, maybe with the injuries I have had. I think it’s 12 years at this stage, and I’d love to go for a couple of more years but my body is telling me another thing.”
Michael Fennelly was speaking at the launch of PepTalk, a free inter-company competition run over four weeks which aims to use technology to promote mental wellbeing and healthy lifestyle. Details at www.peptalk.ie