Friday 20 October 2017

Captain Colin Fennelly is cleared for Cats' duty

Kilkenny skipper Colin Fennelly lets actions speak louder than words and, like many others who have led Brian Cody's teams, is finding his feet after a long apprenticeship

Kilkenny captain Colin Fennelly leads his side out, followed by team-mates Tommy Walsh and Richie Hogan and kit man Rackard Cody
Kilkenny captain Colin Fennelly leads his side out, followed by team-mates Tommy Walsh and Richie Hogan and kit man Rackard Cody

Christy O'Connor

On the Friday evening before last year's All-Ireland final replay, a bushfire of anxiety and concern ignited around Colin Fennelly.

Fennelly had been inducted into the Defence Forces in the Curragh at the beginning of that week, but had been cleared for leave of absence from Friday evening at 4.30 until Tuesday morning at 8.30. Yet after training that Friday evening, the Kilkenny management discovered that Fennelly had to immediately return to the Curragh and was due to take part in further training the following day.

A mix-up in scheduling was sorted out by a series of phone calls, but Fennelly's leave was still set in stone. He won his second All-Ireland senior medal, celebrated at the homecoming on the Monday night and was back in the Curragh for 8.30 Tuesday morning.

Fennelly had been dropped for that game and trying to prepare beforehand presented him with one of the biggest challenges of his life.

Billeted

Apart from the induction training, he had to sleep in billeted accommodation. He had to be in bed at a certain time. He was marched to his meals, where he had a certain amount of time to eat.

Acclimatising to that level of order and uniformity wasn't easy for somebody who was 24 and who had just finished four years of college at Cork Institute of Technology. It was even more of a challenge with the concerns of being dropped for an All-Ireland final circling around his head.

Fennelly faced all those difficulties head on. In one sense, he was already primed for the challenge. Over the years, Brian Cody has spoken to the Defence Forces at a number of different forums. Last year, he addressed the Army Cadets in the Curragh. Cody has repeatedly been asked to share his thoughts and experiences with the Forces because they feel that his attitude – and that of his players – is broadly similar to their philosophy on leadership, team spirit, group identity and teamwork.

Like any of the Kilkenny players on Cody's panel, a certain standard is expected. Fennelly was spoken to by Cody about his form between the drawn and replayed All-Ireland finals last year. He was also one of four players spoken to by management after this year's Leinster quarter-final against Offaly. Three were former All Stars, while Fennelly is the current captain. Cody wasn't happy with their performances and they needed to know. Cody has got a response from three of those players ever since, including Fennelly.

Cody has always liked goading big performances from players with a point to prove. After being taken off in last year's Leinster final after just 23 minutes, Fennelly responded with 1-2 and a direct hand in 1-3 in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick. After being dropped for the All-Ireland final replay, he came on and scored a goal.

Being captain of Kilkenny brings a whole other level of expectation, but the burden has been that bit heavier for Fennelly to carry because of his oscillating position on the team over the last two seasons.

He was dropped for the Leinster semi-final replay against Dublin in June and Kilkenny's ongoing injury crisis has probably insulated him from further demotions as the summer has progressed. Yet, having scored just three points from four appearances, he finally exploded against Waterford – especially in extra-time – when hitting four points.

Similar to his brother Michael in 2009 and TJ Reid, to a lesser extent, in 2010, Fennelly has also fitted the classic profile of one of the many 'silent' captains Kilkenny have had over the years.

Fennelly has only been on the panel for three years, which has weakened his connection to the wider sporting public's consciousness.

In a forward line of marquee players and huge names, he doesn't yet carry that status. With the county champions retaining the right to pick the county captain, Fennelly has been bestowed with the honour at a time when he has been struggling with his form and fighting to nail down a permanent starting position.

In other ways, Fennelly has been dealing with expectation all his life. That was inevitable with his surname and his club. The Ballyhale Shamrocks teams that won nine county titles and three All-Ireland club titles between 1978 and 1991 were backboned by seven Fennelly brothers. Colin and Michael's father, Michael Snr, was one of the handful of players to play in all of those successes.

Michael captained the Kilkenny U-21s to the 2006 All-Ireland title, but Colin's underage career took longer to get started. His two years as a minor in 2006 and 2007 were largely indifferent, but he got his chance to establish himself early with Ballyhale after Henry Shefflin and Cha Fitzpatrick were injured in the autumn of 2007 – and he took it. Fennelly hit three classy points in that year's county final against St Martin's and Michael Walsh drafted him into the Kilkenny U-21 panel the following season. He first announced himself on the big stage in the 2008 All-Ireland U-21 semi-final against Galway when hitting four points from play.

Cody brought him in for some training matches in 2010, but Fennelly went to the US that summer after the U-21s were beaten and he didn't make his competitive debut until the following season.

He was Kilkenny's outstanding discovery during that spring, scoring goals in four of the six regular league games he started. Few Kilkenny players have gone straight into Cody's championship teams without serving an arduous apprenticeship, but Cody had seen enough in him to realise he was good enough.

Fennelly only hit 1-5 in four championship matches in 2011, but he really underlined how much his game had developed – especially his work-rate – in the All-Ireland final against Tipperary when eight of his 18 plays were hooks, blocks or tackles. He showcased his bravery when he blocked Padraic Maher at one stage with his head.

Despite his bravery, searing pace, immense athleticism, ball-winning ability, talent for breaking tackles and a head for goals, the Kilkenny public can be hard to win over and Fennelly has invariably had his doubters.

He was very one-sided early in his career but he has worked hard to overcome that deficiency.

His scoring rate has been moderate and he has often been accused of not being clinical enough in front of goal.

As a person, friends describe Fennelly as good company, engaging and intelligent. The players who played alongside him in CIT say he never said much in their dressing-room, but that any time he did, he had everyone's attention.

Currently, he is based with the 3rd Infantry Battalion in Kilkenny, serving alongside Eoin Larkin and Paul Murphy. Fennelly has already got stronger since he joined the Defence Forces.

Another county player who has served alongside Fennelly says that – similar to Larkin and Murphy – Fennelly will become a key player for the county as he gets physically stronger.

When Larkin led Kilkenny to last year's All-Ireland title, he was the first player in the Defence Forces to captain an All-Ireland winning team since Tipperary's Tony Wall in 1958.

Fennelly has the chance to repeat that feat this year, but that is the least of his worries for now.

Firmly re-establishing himself on this team is his only priority.

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