Saturday 3 December 2016

'Cody will do everything to get Fennelly ready for a big game. He is key to everything'

Michael Fennelly

Christy O'Connor

Published 04/09/2015 | 02:30

Michael Fennelly is a vital cog in Kilkenny’s well-oiled machine
Michael Fennelly is a vital cog in Kilkenny’s well-oiled machine

Before the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, Michael Fennelly had done no hurling training. Zero. He had been able to fit in some running and gym work but ball-work was out given the extent of his back problems. An accompanying groin problem further inflated doubts about his availability.

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It was touch and go up until the day before the game but Brian Cody still started him. It was no surprise. Fennelly was one of the game's most influential players, making more plays (23) than anyone else on the pitch.

Both Cody and Fennelly had been in a similar position the previous year. In the middle of last summer, Fennelly couldn't walk without pain. After his back went into spasms, his muscles were screaming for respite. He made two attempts to resume training and both had to be terminated immediately.

Fennelly was more concerned with walking pain-free than hurling. Less than two weeks before the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick, Fennelly did some contact work in training for the first time since early June. He couldn't even strike a ball. Cody still started him against Limerick. Again, Fennelly was immense.

By now, patching up Fennelly to get him ready for battle has become a trend. Despite the focus Cody has always put on training and training ground form in selecting the team, making allowances for Fennelly is also implicit recognition of how important he has become to Kilkenny.

Limited

"Even with such limited hurling and training behind him, Cody will do everything to get Mick Fennelly ready for a big game," says David Herity, who retired last year with five All-Ireland medals. "There are very few lads in that Kilkenny set-up that, if they missed the amount of training he has, they would not be considered.

"Mick is a definite starter for Kilkenny because he brings such a dynamic to the team at midfield. Cody wants to use his pace, power and physicality to set the tone, to break tackles and get Kilkenny on the front foot. That's why he is so vital to Kilkenny. He is key to everything."

Fennelly has had to draw on all immense willpower and power of recovery to get himself right because his body has broken down so often that it's in constant need of repair.

In 2013, he wrecked both of his ankles. The tendons in one ankle had stopped functioning. One of the ligaments was on the point of rupturing but he rushed his rehab to play against Waterford and Cork in the championship.

In 2012, Fennelly returned to the team for the All-Ireland quarter-final after a three-month absence, not playing since damaging his ankle in the league final against Cork. The previous year, he lined out in the first round even though he hadn't trained at all.

"The man is a colossus given the punishment his body has gone through," says Herity. "He suffers terribly with blisters on his feet. After some matches, his feet would be in fierce bother. Mick's been so messed up with injuries that management know they can't train him like everyone else.

"The medical team spend so much time analysing his situation. He tries to peak for a championship match, then rest, before trying to make it back for a couple of training sessions before the next big game. That is literally the way Mick Fennelly has been going now for about three years."

Injuries and setbacks have been a recurring theme throughout his career. The 2008 summer was effectively written off with a broken wrist. A bout of the mumps knocked him back at the outset of the 2009 championship. Back then though, Fennelly's injuries and setbacks had a different status because he was only a bit-part player.

Between 2006 and 2009 he started just three championship matches. He tried hard. He trained hard but Kilkenny had a huge roster of talent and Fennelly couldn't edge his way into the picture.

The pressure increased in 2009 when Ballyhale Shamrocks nominated him as Kilkenny captain and Kilkenny were chasing the four-in-a-row. He started the Leinster semi-final against Galway but was the first player replaced and Fennelly didn't see a minute's game-time again until September.

He came on midway through the second half of the All-Ireland final, scored a point and made a positive impact. He lifted the Liam MacCarthy but Fennelly found the captaincy a heavy burden when he wasn't starting.

The emotional strain drained Fennelly so much he was unsure about returning for another campaign of personal doubt and uncertainty. On the team holiday, he confided in Michael Kavanagh that he was thinking about quitting.

Ballyhale's run to the All-Ireland club title the following March suspended the need to make any decision. The road back was also a little clearer. Derek Lyng's ongoing hip problem limited his game time and Fennelly finally got a chance to stretch his legs. Kilkenny lost the All-Ireland final to Tipp but Fennelly ended the season as an All-Star and on the shortlist for Hurler of the Year. A year later, he won the award by universal acclaim.

Different

By that stage, Fennelly was a completely different player. His tall frame had been bulked up with huge muscle. Along with Jackie Tyrrell, Fennelly became Kilkenny's chief enforcer.

"Around 2011-2012, Mick started eating weights and he built himself up into this huge man," says Herity.

"Leinster played Munster in an Interprovincial semi-final in early 2012 and the jersey could barely fit over him. Mick got a goal that day when he just fired everyone out of his way. Even the other fellas with Leinster were saying, 'My God, this guy's a beast'.

"Lads don't understand how big he is until they're right beside him. When he gets possession, he can get into full stride in his first two or three yards. Once he builds up that speed, nothing will stop him."

Injuries though, curtailed his power for a while. The ankle injury suffered in the 2012 league final impacted on his form that summer.

After a brilliant league final in 2013, his body struggled under the strain from his ankle problems that summer. Yet even being on the field showcased his immense mental strength.

"Michael is very, very brave," says PM O'Sullivan, a Ballyhale selector when the club won All-Irelands in 2007 and 2015. "Despite all his injuries, Michael has still been able to deliver superb performance levels. He is really dedicated but if I was to single out one of his greatest attributes, it's his physical bravery."

In his personal life too, Fennelly has made some brave decisions. A couple of years back he packed in his job with the bank and went back to do a master's in performance analysis at UL.

For the winter of 2013-2014, he went to Australia and hooked up with the Sydney Swans, observing their pre-season training and helping out in the gym.

Later that year, he took up employment with Setanta College as a lecturer in the Thurles campus of LIT.

Despite another injury-filled season, Fennelly was critical to Kilkenny winning another All-Ireland title. After making just eight plays in the 2014 drawn All-Ireland final, moving him back to midfield for the replay was decisive. Fennelly was the game's most effective player, making 22 plays and bossing the middle third.

His season kept rolling when Ballyhale marched to another All-Ireland club title, his third. Fennelly lined out at centre-back.

"Michael had a long standing ambition to play centre-back with the Shamrocks," says O'Sullivan. "In other years, we needed him at midfield but he really anchored down the centre-back position for us. He showed his all-round class but there is a lot more to Michael Fennelly's game than just midfield play."

Bigger

Being pain-free over the winter allowed Fennelly to get into superb shape. He got bigger and stronger but the hard ground is clearly a trigger-point for his back injury and it flared up again after Ballyhale played Danesfort in the second round of the club league in early May.

Trying to get fit again for the summer was another race. He had lost some muscle mass from not being able to do much in the gym but when his lower back goes into spasm, it seriously impacts on Fennelly's quality of life. Daily functions like bending down are difficult. He can't walk pain-free. Even jogging is a no-go.

After returning to play against Wexford in June, when he was outstanding again, Fennelly was struck down with food poisoning before the Leinster final. Then his back problems resurfaced. An existing arthritic condition may be compounding the problem but the absence of any clear diagnosis has added to the pain and frustration. It has also forced Fennelly into evaluating his long-term welfare.

"It probably has been there in the back of my mind for the last year or two," said Fennelly in June. "Life is more important and people forget about you pretty quickly when you move on, no matter how many All-Ireland medals you have, unfortunately.

"Your back is everything. If it is not right, if you can't do daily functions, and if you had kids in the future and you can't play with them, that's a different scenario. It's something that I will revisit at some stage and see how my body is in relation to what is going on with it."

For now though, all that matters is trying to win another All-Ireland for Kilkenny.

And Fennelly is absolutely central to that relentless pursuit.

Irish Independent

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