Kelly on fire as Sars left dazed by late surge
Munster club SHC semi-final: Ballyea 4-18 Thurles Sars 2-22
As long as Ballyea or Clare have Tony Kelly among them they can always aspire to success.
That's been evident for some time but never more apparent than this gripping Munster club semi-final in Cusack Park that had the former Hurler of the Year's DNA all over it.
For almost 50 minutes you wouldn't have picked him out if you didn't know him.
An early penalty conversion slipped through Patrick McCormack's grasp and a couple of long range frees floated over weren't the return of someone of his calibre.
But as ever, when he was needed most, he delivered, finishing normal time like a train as Ballyea successfully chased down a seven-point deficit to force extra-time thanks to a spectacular Gary Brennan goal.
We'll get to Brennan in time because it merits it. But first Kelly. From the 51st minute to the 71st minute (just after half-time in extra-time) he scored an incredible six points from play as he ran a hapless Thurles midfield into the ground. Add in a free he converted after being fouled himself and it underpins just how hard he went in that period.
Thurles had been cruising to what looked like a routine victory to take them back to a Munster final after recovering from a shaky start themselves when they shipped two early goals to Ballyea's aerial bombardment, first the impressive Niall Deasy winning that penalty for Kelly to convert after only three minutes before Pearse Lillis plundered a second, three minutes later, after Brennan had taken possession.
It left the home side, seven days on from their landmark first Clare county title, leading by five points at one stage, 2-2 to 0-3.
But Pa Bourke, Tommy Doyle and Aidan McCormack consistently hurt the Ballyea defence and when McCormack goaled after 13 minutes the picture was a lot healthier for them.
By the break they were 1-11 to 2-4 clear and there was little to suggest that Ballyea could resurrect themselves when Thurles kicked on to twice lead by seven points.
But just when Thurles were fastening their seat-belts and preparing for a smooth landing Kelly erupted.
His third point from play left just three in it into added time and that's when Brennan stepped in spectacularly, grabbing a ball out near the new stand side and taking the direct route to goal.
He should have been stopped but his power and athleticism took him clear. Suddenly he was on top of McCormack and the finish was sharp enough to send it to extra-time.
The momentum was all with Ballyea as a stunned Sars team retreated to their dressing-room wondering how a seven-point lead had been given up in just under nine minutes.
Ballyea capitalised too, Kelly hitting two of the first three scores before Brennan cleared the road with the effect of a snow plough to make the opening for Damien Burke's 67th- minute goal and a four-point lead.
Aidan McCormack did give Thurles some traction and when Padraic Maher made the most of a poor decision by referee Diarmuid Kirwan not to award a free out after full-back Jack Browne had been taken high with a goal the sides were level again, 4-15 to 2-21, with just four minutes remaining.
But after watching Kelly and Brennan lead so impressively Deasy assumed responsibility to hit the last three points, from play, a free and a '65 he had engineered for himself.
The intervention of Kelly had left Ballyea coach and former Clare All-Ireland winner Fergal Hegarty in awe.
"I think he's the best player in Clare I've ever seen, in my time, and is arguably one of the best hurlers of this generation, that's undoubted. But it's the character he has. When the need is greatest, he'll come up with the scores. And the scores he came up with, one was better than the next, it was Roy of the Rovers stuff.
"He's double marked and man marked a lot of the time but he keeps working, work that a lot of people don't see. But nobody can criticise his work-rate."
Brennan's athleticism won praise too with Hegarty figuring he could have played a second match.
"Gary's goal was unbelievable, to take it on from where he took it, and to hit it from his weaker side to the top of the net - that was unbelievable."
Thurles might have scrambled a late win themselves. A clear foul on Pa Bourke was overlooked while a Ronan Maher sideline struck an upright and rebounded before he was narrowly wide with another effort but coach Paddy McCormack praised Ballyea for their spirit.
"You can harp back to different things happening but at the end of the day Ballyea won the game and showed an awful lot of real true spirit. They won their first county final last week, we have no excuses, they deserved their win," he said.
Scorers - Ballyea: T Kelly 1-10 (1-0 pen, 3fs, 1 '65), N Deasy 0-5 (3fs, 1 '65), D Burke, P Lillis 1-1 each, G Brennan 1-0, PJ Connolly 0-1. Thurles Sarsfields: P Bourke 0-9 (0-6fs), A McCormack 1-4, P Maher 1-0, T Doyle 0-3, C Lanigan 0-2, R Maher, M O'Brien, J Maher, S Cahill 0-1 each.
Thurles Sarsfields: P McCormack; S Maher, S Lillis, R Dwan; D Maher, P Maher, R Maher; J Maher, S Cahill; B McCarthy, A McCormack, T Doyle; L Corbett, P Bourke, C Lanigan. Subs: M O'Brien for Lanigan (51), K Dunne for Doyle (57), D Kennedy for Lillis (61), C Moloney for Corbett (63). Extra-time - Lillis for J Maher, Lanigan for Dunne, Corbett for Moloney, J Maher for Lanigan (70), C Moloney for Kennedy (73), M Cahill for Corbett (75)
Ballyea: K Sheehan; J Neylon, J Browne, B Carrig; P Flanagan, G O'Connell, J Murphy; T Kelly, S Lineen; N Deasy, PJ Connolly, C Doohan; D Burke, G Brennan, P Lillis. Subs: M O'Leary for Burke (5), D Egan for Carrig (11), A Keane for Connolly (47).
Ref: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork).