Saturday 3 December 2016

Meet Galway hurling's latest star - teen sensation Conor Whelan

John Fallon

Published 28/07/2015 | 02:30

Conor Whelan’s old headmaster ‘knew he would go all the way’
Conor Whelan’s old headmaster ‘knew he would go all the way’

Conor Whelan may not have been known to the wider GAA public before last Sunday but those in Kinvara who have watched the 18-year-old emerge weren't in the least bit surprised by the way he slotted in so comfortably in his first match for the Galway seniors.

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Whelan, who never played in the League and was only called into the panel in May, scored 1-2 as the Tribesmen took Cork apart and set up an All-Ireland semi-final with Tipperary.

Whelan already he has two seasons of senior club hurling under his belt and two years with the Galway minors, having previously starred with the U-16 and U-14 sides.

His progress has been monitored, not just by county management, but also by a succession of defenders at school and club levels, many of them not shy about dishing out some heavy treatment in a bid to curb a player with pace, precision and loads of courage.

26 July 2015; Conor Whelan, Galway, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Galway v Cork. Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
26 July 2015; Conor Whelan, Galway, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Galway v Cork. Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

He has learned to deal with them all.

His two performances with the Galway intermediate team - he is now ineligible for next month's All-Ireland final - this summer did not go unnoticed.

Any doubts Anthony Cunningham and his management team had about springing him disappeared last Sunday week when he scored three goals and a scatter of points in a full training match at Semple Stadium as Galway prepared for Cork.

But then, hurling is in the blood. He is a second cousin of Clare's Shane O'Donnell - a player who knows a thing or two about arriving on the scene with a bang - while, poignantly, he is a first cousin of former Galway defender Niall Donohue, who died tragically two years ago just a week short of his 23rd birthday.

Conor's mother Caroline is a sister of Niall's mum Mary, who died from cancer in 1996. Caroline's cousin Martin O'Donnell is the father of Clare's 2013 All-Ireland hat-trick hero Shane.

They may be in different provinces but it is only a short distance across the Clare border and many families and GAA clubs in both counties are inter-linked.

26 July 2015; Conor Whelan, Galway, celebrates scoring a second half point. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Galway v Cork. Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
26 July 2015; Conor Whelan, Galway, celebrates scoring a second half point. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Galway v Cork. Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Conor's dad Kieran, whose sister Maire became the first woman to be Attorney General in 2011, was an accomplished hurler with Kinvara and it was inevitable that children Ciaran, Elaine and the youngest, Conor, would become immersed in sport.

One man in a perfect position to chart Conor's progress is Dominick Gallagher, the principal of St Joseph's National School in the small seaside village, and also the Kinvara club chairman.

"It was no surprise to any of us that he did so well on Sunday. He is an exceptional talent, a fine young man from a lovely family," said Gallagher.

"He was great at football and soccer as well but I think anyone who saw him hurling knew he would go all the way.

26 July 2015; Conor Whelan, Galway, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Galway v Cork. Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
26 July 2015; Conor Whelan, Galway, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Galway v Cork. Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

"Indeed, I think those who know him would probably rate his performance on Sunday at no more than six out of ten.

"There is a lot more to come from him and hopefully we will see it.

"Fair play to Anthony Cunningham and the Galway management for taking the chance. It was a big call but they knew he would be able for it.

"He has had to learn how to look after himself because teams can't contain him. Some of the goals he has got over the years have been outrageous. He would put the ball through the eye of a needle.

"He has the pace, skill and courage, but then he works very hard at getting better. He's the first at training and usually the last to leave.

"We are developing a new pitch and I went down there last Thursday night and he was there on his own with 40 balls, working away. He is a superb free-taker as well."

Galway manager Cunningham was the first to point out that Whelan won't have the element of surprise against Tipperary, but Gallagher reckons that the teenager from Cahernamadra outside the village will take things in his stride.

"We are all delighted for him, not least as he takes time out and works with the younger players. He is not fazed by things and the bigger stage the better he performs," he added.

As with many of his age, there were concerns at the club that Whelan might head for the United States or somewhere for the summer but club sponsor Mike Burke offered him a job at The Pier Head in the village.

Whelan is due to return to Mary Immaculate College in Limerick in September, where he is going into second year Arts.

One of his best mates there is Limerick's summer protege Cian Lynch. They will have a lot to talk about.

Irish Independent

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