Sunday 24 September 2017

'We didn't think we'd get to Cusack Park, let alone Croker'

No-one exemplified the Ballyea defiance more than Kelly, who hit 1-10 including six points from play when they came from behind to stun Thurles Sarsfields in extra-time. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
No-one exemplified the Ballyea defiance more than Kelly, who hit 1-10 including six points from play when they came from behind to stun Thurles Sarsfields in extra-time. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

When a jubilant Tony Kelly eventually made it off the hallowed Croke Park sod having helped Clare secure just the fourth All-Ireland SHC title in their history, he never could have imagined that his next playing venture to the capital would be with his club Ballyea.

The date was September 28, 2013 and the Banner maestro had the world at his feet before collecting Young Hurler and Hurler of the Year awards later that year, but despite the promise of three successive All-Ireland U-21 titles, there would be no encore at GAA HQ.

Not yet, anyway, and for a player of Kelly's undoubted class, it's a crying shame that he hasn't graced the game's greatest venue since, but that hasn't stopped him delivering some stirring performances for his county.

But with Clare out of the race for Liam MacCarthy last July, Kelly's attention quickly turned to Ballyea, an area of approximately 700 people with only a shop, a church and a school, and he has cemented his status as one of the game's finest in recent months.

The mark of a true great is consistently producing the goods where it all began at club level and the 23-year-old has helped spearhead a fairytale run to St Patrick's Day for the Clare village with a string of magical displays.

No-one exemplified the Ballyea defiance more than Kelly, who hit 1-10 including six points from play, when they came from behind to stun Thurles Sarsfields in extra-time while he added another five from play in their Munster final win over Glen Rovers and a further three in their thrilling AIB All-Ireland semi-final defeat of St Thomas'.

But the scores only tell half the story. Any youngster looking to hone their craft should take note of the energy expended when foraging all over the pitch and that, combined with a touch of trickery, has propelled them into uncharted territory. Even he can't believe Ballyea find themselves within touching distance of the Tommy Moore Cup this Friday, however.

"If you'd told me in 2013 coming off the field with Clare that the next time I'd be in Croke Park would be with Ballyea, I would have said, 'Jaysus I won't be here for a very long time'. We definitely didn't expect to be here," Kelly says with genuine disbelief.

"Let alone get to Croke Park, we thought we wouldn't be playing in Cusack Park but if you can't really play in Croke Park you can play nowhere. It's a place that it's kind of off the cuff and you give everything a lash."

Kelly concedes that if Ballyea brought the whole parish they still wouldn't have as many supporters as opponents Cuala, but he does see many similarities with the Dublin kingpins and their run to the final hasn't surprised him one bit.

"If you were to look at their team on paper, I could draw parallels with ourselves. They have the six or seven inter-county players, very good inter-county players, and they're backing it up with football-orientated players who are also very good at hurling, like Con O'Callaghan," he explains.

"You know how dangerous they are as well. You can't hide the fact that they are sprinkled with a lot of inter-county hurlers. There's nothing to be fearing at this stage for us. We have to just go up and worry about ourselves really.

"It's easy to get caught up with Con O'Callaghan, he's scored seven goals. You can get caught up with that and try and mark him and do this plan for him and do that plan for him and you can be taking away from your own game as well.

"It's a once-off game. We're trying to come up here and do what's got us here, work rate and a bit of heart and a bit of luck and the fairytale kind of stuff is what we've been playing off and we're hoping that it serves us well on Paddy's Day as well."

maturity

Ballyea are always rated as "a dangerous team" in Clare and are unbeaten in two championship seasons over 60 minutes, losing twice after extra-time, but Kelly feels maturity is the biggest difference with the past.

Four years ago Kelly joined Tony Griffin (2006) as Ballyea's second All-Star and having played alongside Griffin when he was "carrying Ballyea and kept us up senior on his own", he'd love to have him on board after watching him score "1-8 or 1-9" in a junior match when picking up a hurley for the first time in two years.

Another interesting sub-plot to the final is brothers Niall and Aonghus Keane being among the substitutes on opposite sides after Niall joined the Dalkey side last season and with more plots than most Hollywood epics, it's likely to live up to its billing, so strap yourself in.

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