I'm more of a target now - Whelan
Published 03/06/2016 | 02:30
Conor Whelan comes straight out with it. This time 12 months ago, there was no way he saw himself playing in the 2015 All-Ireland hurling final. How could he have? He hadn't seen a minute of senior action by that stage and was only part of the Tribesmen squad a matter of weeks.
At that stage he was unknown to most everyone outside of Galway. The Kinvara man had graduated from the minor ranks with a strong reputation and was part of both the U-21 and intermediate set-ups in the county.
But Whelan had been held back from senior and wasn't part of Anthony Cunningham's squad for their League campaign. He was more seen as the man of tomorrow.
However, then manager Cunningham picked up the phone in May and brought the youngster in. He flourished quickly, to the point where he felt like he should have got a taste in the Leinster final.
He kept working and by the time the All-Ireland quarter-final with Cork rolled around, Cunningham couldn't ignore his claims. In a full training match in the build-up to that game the story goes that he scored a bagful, including a hat-trick of goals. Whelan carried that form into the clash with the Rebels, notching 1-2.
"I was pushing for a place in the Leinster final and I was very disappointed not to feature at all," Whelan said, as Galway prepare to start their Championship campaign with a trip to Westmeath on Sunday.
"We went back training and I put the head down and worked and I was lucky enough to be picked against Cork and was happy to contribute to the team."
We might have known he'd make an impact. He's a second cousin of Clare's 2013 All-Ireland final hero Shane O'Donnell and goes to college in Mary Immaculate in Limerick, where he is friendly with Cian Lynch.
Lynch also likes to start fast and he grabbed the man of the match award on his full Championship debut last summer.
And now Whelan is faced with making an impact when more of opponents' focus will be dedicated to stopping him. The element of surprise is well and truly gone.
And there is no Cunningham there this time either, with Whelan insisting he stayed away "from all that trouble".
"Yeah I suppose I'm more of a target now," he agreed. "But that's for me to adapt my game and that's something I have to get used to.
"Every inter-county forward is going to be marked by a serious back so it's not too much of a change. But maybe they are paying a small bit more attention."
On Sunday, Galway open their summer campaign with a trip to Mullingar. One day, Whelan would like to play a Leinster Championship match in Galway, pointing out that the other cuckoos in the Leinster nest are afforded that luxury.
"Kerry have a Championship game in Kerry and Antrim have had a Championship game in Antrim and we still haven't got anything in Galway," he said.
"That's for the county board. We're focusing on Westmeath up in Mullingar and hopefully getting a performance there."
Westmeath hurling is on a high after recording a first Championship win over Kilkenny last week at U-21 level, while they also gave the Galway seniors a scare in 2011 with the team level heading into the final quarter. A year later Galway won again in Mullingar but only after conceding a hefty 4-12.
"In 2012 they ran us very close - we are not taking our eye off the ball for a second," said Whelan. "Michael Ryan is doing a very good job up there and we are preparing for a dogfight; we're well aware they pose a serious threat in their own back garden."