Expectation no longer a burden
Colin Fennelly has stepped up to become key man for Kilkenny, writes Damian Lawlor
THE 2011 All-Ireland final was in the melting pot when Lar Corbett got the ball on the right wing, shaped his hurley in the direction of the posts and pulled the trigger.
A point from Tipp's chief attacker would have lifted a team in dire need of a boost but, as if out of nowhere, Colin Fennelly appeared in Corbett's peripheral vision. Fennelly lost his stick but ended up putting his head in Corbett's line of fire. The Thurles man, however, had already pulled and his hurl connected with the top of Fennelly's helmet. The force of the blow split his head, but all Fennelly was concerned about was whether he had put the Tipp man off. He had.
Afterwards, many analysts pointed out that Corbett didn't puck a ball after that episode. They maintained Fennelly's block had dampened his spirit. In his autobiography All in my Head, Corbett disputes that, but admits the intervention galvanised Kilkenny and their support.
"Throughout that game there were clear signs that Kilkenny just would not be beaten on the day," Corbett wrote. "We were winning plenty of puck-outs but they turned us over 18 times after we had won possession. At one stage I got the ball and was slow about hitting it, and Colin Fennelly stuck his head in and blocked me down. For the Kilkenny fans that was like Mel Gibson giving his Braveheart horseback speech on the Curragh plain. People said my head dropped after that but while I was slow in striking, I did what I always do: I put it behind me and moved on to the next ball. Stuff like that doesn't worry me."
Tommy Walsh took a different view, highlighting that moment as the one that turned the game in their favour. "When Colin blocked Lar with his head, I thought that summed it all up for us, a pure team performance," Walsh said.
Fennelly, however, had to wait almost three years to hit a similar high note in a Kilkenny jersey. Once more it was against Tipperary. Kilkenny trailed by six points at half-time in this year's second-round league encounter. The previous week they had been beaten by Clare and it was no exaggeration to say that people were starting to think that Kilkenny were a spent force. Then Fennelly stepped up and fired a tremendous 3-5.
"Some of our established names were missing," says former goalkeeper and under 21 manager Michael Walsh. "Someone needed to step up and Colin did. With so many legends nearing the end of their careers, our younger hurlers have not seen the same faith bestowed on them as the likes of Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh did. But when Colin hit three goals against Tipp, I think all of the Kilkenny supporters finally realised what they had on their books."
Since that day the Ballyhale man has become the focal point of the attack. Until that afternoon supporters were unconvinced about this young member of the Fennelly hurling dynasty.
"That may have been slightly unfair on the chap," Walsh adds. "It's just a mark of the success that the Kilkenny supporters have become used over the past 13 years. Expectation is massive here."
Considering that Brian Cody called him into the set-up during the 2010 season, his gradual development seems like a black mark against him and that's why it needs qualification. Fennelly headed to the US in that summer of 2010 and never settled into any rhythm with the team. There have also been a number of injuries to contend with.
His first real marker was put down in the 2011 NHL when he scored four goals from six games and that was sufficient for Cody to fast-track him into championship action. But that scoring habit failed to surface again that year – he managed just one goal in the summer along with five points from play.
Yet his tackling and work rate were enough to keep him in the team, like in 2012 when he managed just 2-3 in six championship games and was dropped for the All-Ireland final replay.
"He had just joined the Army and that first year would have taken a lot out of him," Walsh adds. "That needs to be factored in. I was talking to him at the homecoming on the Monday night after we beat Galway and he had to be back in the Curragh for 8.0 the following morning. People forget that. All the Army training would have taken a huge toll initially."
At the time, Fennelly was playing corner-forward and though he was hungry for ball maybe it wasn't his best position. They wanted goals from him and when they didn't get them in the championship, he was criticised for not being lethal enough in front of the posts.
As county champions, Ballyhale Shamrocks nominated him as skipper for the 2013 championship, but like Jackie Tyrrell a few years previously, it seemed unfair that Fennelly was the team's figurehead at such an early stage in his career. Not long before, he had been spoken to about his form. At 24, establishing himself on the team should have been his only priority, but now he was captain too.
Fennelly shared his thoughts at the time with the media on the extra responsibility the captaincy brought. "I spoke to Brian about it at the start of the year and he just said, 'Look, put the captaincy out of your head'. He just told me to put my mind on what you want, and for me, that was a place at corner-forward or full-forward. I still have my place and that's the main thing.
Everywhere he looked there was pressure. Ballyhale won nine Kilkenny championships and three All-Ireland titles in the space of 13 years and those teams were backboned by the famous Fennelly brothers. Colin's father, Michael, played in all those victories. Meanwhile, clubmates Henry Shefflin, James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick and his brother Michael had all led the county to All-Ireland successes. Matching their deeds would have brought its own demands.
"Ah, in a way he has been dealing with pressure all of his life – just look at his surname and the club he comes from," Walsh says. "He would have been grand with all that. Colin has serious belief in his ability, in a good way. And when you come from a house full of All-Ireland medals you don't want to be the odd one out either."
Still, before they played Tipperary in last year's epic qualifier, he had scored just 0-2 in the championship. He did, however, manage a crucial point to help Kilkenny win and then burst into the Waterford game with four points. He didn't feature on the scoresheet against Cork but he wasn't the only one who laboured as a weary Cats team went down by five points in the quarter-final. This year we've seen a different beast. He's moved out the field, looks fitter than ever and has physically progressed. He is with the 3rd Infantry Battalion in Kilkenny, and has clearly become stronger.
"I would say he has revelled in playing out the field," says Walsh. "I played him at number 10 for the under 21 team and he was great there. There is also no doubt about it the Army has helped him – what better training could you get?"
His rise could not have come at a better time. Kilkenny's resources were tightly stretched last year and the team looked tired. But it has been all change since the turn of the year. Jackie Tyrrell acknowledged last week that he had never seen such an overhaul within the camp.
Last year's panel lacked the depth of old and needed significant replenishment. In the 2008 All-Ireland final, the Kilkenny bench resembled an All Star exhibition team. It featured Michael Rice, Mick Fennelly, Willie O'Dwyer, Richie Mullally, John Dalton, PJ Delaney, James Ryall, James McGarry, John Tennyson, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid. In 2013, however, they were so stretched that Walter Walsh was taken off against Waterford in the qualifiers at Thurles – and then brought back on again. It was vital for the likes of Fennelly to emerge this year. It's hard to believe he struggled in the past.
"When you're in the corner so much, you can get used to things," he said recently. "But they (management) talked to me at the start of the year and said, 'Look, we want you out there and need more work out of you'. It was down to myself then and my fitness and being able to keep on going – and I was able to stay going."
His athletic prowess is also helping to engineer opportunities for others. This ability to bring others into the game is giving the Kilkenny management more options.
It looks like those broad shoulders are finally coping with the massive weight of expectation that has been placed on them.
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