Tony Kelly and Clare aiming to fire on all cylinders

Waterford stand in the way of the Banner County’s first league title success in 38 years

Tony Kelly: “The biggest thing was that we weren’t doing ourselves justice on the field as a group.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Tony Kelly: “The biggest thing was that we weren’t doing ourselves justice on the field as a group.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Tony Kelly was sent into the league semi-final against Kilkenny after 52 minutes. He might have anticipated entering the match just when it was beginning to reach boiling point. Instead, Clare had established a disconcertingly handsome lead against the All-Ireland champions and Kelly soon whipped over two quick points in the closing stanza as if to reassure the Banner support that all was well with the world.

The mood was striking; the MacCarthy Cup wintered in Clare as recently as three years ago but there was no disguising the delight on the faces of the supporters as their team repeatedly breached the Kilkenny defence. The Cats are the barometer. If you are scoring goals against Kilkenny in April, things can’t be too bad.

“Well, I wasn’t particularly shocked by the performance,” Kelly says carefully when asked about his comeback. This is in the games-room of Clare’s training facility. Kelly’s ligament injury gave him much more time to fine-tune his ping-pong and pool skills than he would have liked in the months when his team-mates were slogging it out in the darkness.

Initial forecasts had Kelly missing the league entirely. His prodigious underage career speaks volumes for the hectic nature of his sporting life as a youngster but he was blessed with injuries. This was the first significant interruption to a stellar hurling life and he describes it as “more annoying than anything else”.

The main medicine required was patience and return visits to the physiotherapist. He was instructed to wear a boot for the first five weeks. “You just have to wait and let it heal up and that’s kind of it. You might be able to do a bit of gym work but other than that it is a waiting game.”

For someone accustomed to constant motion, the inactivity was maddening and although he is co-captain along with Cian Dillon, he wasn’t best suited to watching the competition for places becoming keener every week at training. And he saw the benefits of the side’s encouraging league form during their sparkling first half show against Kilkenny.

Massive plus

It is early in the season but there is a different feel about Clare this year. After their sublime and unexpected All-Ireland raid in 2013, Davy Fitzgerald looked hard into the tea-leaves and warned anyone who would listen that the challenging stuff lay ahead. If 2014 was an exercise in near-misses, then last summer was pure frustration.

This year’s league has been rehabilitative. Whether Clare win or lose or Sunday won’t immediately alter that; they seem at peace with things. Earlier, Fitzgerald had shown us around Clare’s training facility. They have put a lot of work and thought and finance into it. He seemed proud of it.

Fitzgerald’s serenity on the sideline this year has been widely noted. He has repeatedly claimed that he always spent the vast majority of his time on the sideline just watching the game but that the cameras seemed to hone in on his occasional eruptions.

Still, this year there have been none to capture, even if it is only the league. So much happened to Fitzgerald and Clare so quickly it feels as if they have been coming up for air this season. For young players like Kelly, winning the senior All-Ireland in 2013 felt like a natural progression from their achievements at U-21 level. But winning the McCarthy Cup brings with it a kind of heaviness, a responsibility.

If there was an irrepressible lightness about Clare in the climactic months of the 2013 hurling season, it was as if they were burdened when it came to defending their championship. It was Clare’s first All-Ireland title since 1997 and their fourth ever, that winter was euphoric. Even though they assured themselves that things would be the same when they returned to training, they weren’t.

“Yeah, I suppose at the time you don’t realise that you’ve won one, really,” Kelly said of Clare’s champagne autumn, when they made being the best hurling team around look ridiculously easy.

Serious attitude

“I suppose looking back you can see how hard it is to win one. There is no bad time to win one but the last two years have shown what work needs to go in to win one. That’s what we’re trying to do this year; win as many games as we can and hopefully it’ll bring us to the latter stages of the summer.”

Deep down, Clare and Kelly want more from this and other seasons and that is to be still hurling in August. They want to win more All-Irelands. Kilkenny’s response to Clare’s triumph has perhaps been their darkest statement yet in terms of their perpetual appetite for competition and for the challenge. Kelly knows that he is among a select group of hurlers; only the Tipp squad of 2010 and the Clare hurlers of 2013 possess All-Ireland medals outside of Kilkenny since 2006. It has been a black and amber decade.

Tipp’s win in 2010 prompted quick predictions of a new dynasty. It didn’t happen. Clare’s style was so persuasive that they were quickly garlanded also. Kelly won both the Hurler of the Year award and the Young Hurler of the Year award in the winter of 2013. He was the first ever hurler to do so. But he is convinced that the attention which followed didn’t faze him. It was more that the collective just couldn’t tap into same vein of form,

The spotlight

“In 2014, we put so much into the league that we fell a bit flat coming into the championship. We came back from holidays and I think we were maybe a few weeks behind everyone else and put a lot into it then. We topped the league in and then fell a bit flat coming into the league semi-final and in the championship as well. When you aren’t winning you are always frustrated. The biggest thing was that we weren’t doing ourselves justice on the field as a group. On a personal level as well, when you aren’t winning games and playing well, the frustration builds.

“A lot of people can give out about referees and everything else but players know when they are not playing well and I think that was the biggest thing over the last two years. I don’t think we have given a great account of ourselves when we have gone out into the biggest games and that is something we are looking to put right this year.”

Fitzgerald’s decision to recruit Donal Óg Cusack as his selector was the easily the most leftfield move of the close season.

The Cork man has been at Fitzgerald’s side on the pitch throughout the league; if anything, he has been the more animated and vocal of the two. Kelly points to the effect that Cusack has had on the group.

“First of all he has been really good with the players. He is not far removed from the game himself so I think it is very easy for him to relate to the players. We all saw his knowledge of the game on the Sunday Game and it is top class. He is no different with us. His knowledge of the game is fantastic....he was a goalkeeper all his life but his pointers to the backs, midfields and forwards; he kind of has an all round knowledge of the whole game and how it should be played. I suppose he suits our players as well....looking at the style he played in Cork it was very much a hurling, free style and I would like to think we are along the same path.

New approach

The confidence with which Clare set about Kilkenny was the most explicit advertisement of Clare’s new approach this season. The return of Kelly, the most extravagant talent in a special vintage of Clare hurlers, is a further sign that things are beginning to fall into place after two turbulent years. Sunday’s final pits them against their immediate championship opponents Waterford but as far as Kelly is concerned, this match is much more than a dress rehearsal.

“Sunday is a one off game....when you are in a final you have to go and win it. Clare haven’t won one in 38 years. Waterford won one last year and it set them up for a good Munster campaign and All-Ireland campaign. We are heading down the road with the intention of winning. They will be as well. But come four or five weeks time...championship raises it another bit and it will be different.

“Even playing against a lot of those lads underage, we know a good bit about them and they know a lot about us. But even if it was a championship game on Sunday and then another championship game, I still think it would be different. We will learn a bit on Sunday and will they learn a bit about us.”

And the Clare hurlers have been learning on their feet.

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