Fennelly is Kilkenny’s juggernaut
It took Michael Fennelly several years to serve his apprenticeship, but his physical presence has now become indispensable to the Cats’ engine room
A couple of unusual statistics hang over the Leinster hurling final and both are likely to occupy the thoughts of the Kilkenny players and the management in their dressing-room before they leave it on Sunday.
One is as eye-opening as the other. The first concerns the venue. Kilkenny have not won in Croke Park in their last three outings there against Dublin (in the league and the league final) and against Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland final.
The second relates to Dublin, whom they haven't beaten in their last three outings -- the drawn league game, the league final and the Walsh Cup last January when they trailed by 15 points at one stage, albeit with a second-string team.
So, the backdrop to this Leinster final is different to what they have been accustomed to.
Kilkenny prepare for it with those two anomalies shifting around in their minds. Uncomfortably so.
A physical battle between arguably the two most physical teams in the game is sure to have an even greater edge as a consequence.
Which is why Kilkenny will be closely monitoring the fitness of their midfield enforcer in the days ahead and hoping that a knock to his hand sustained last week will not rule him out.
Michael Fennelly has become an indispensable asset for Kilkenny.
He is their most improved player and, in the eyes of some, the most rounded midfielder in the game.
The running power he has brought to his play, the combativeness and the finished product have now become essential pieces of Kilkenny's artillery.
When he raced down the sideline into the town end and flashed over those two points against Wexford in the Leinster semi-final just over a fortnight ago, no one was in any doubt that, as much as it was a relief to have Richie Power and Henry Shefflin back on the night, Fennelly's return was of equal significance.
Yet, at 26 years of age, he has only been considered a permanent fixture in the engine room for the last 18 months.
No one typifies the slow graduation process that exists in Kilkenny more than Fennelly and the pathway he has had to take to permanency.
That it should take a player of his stature until his mid-20s to establish himself as he has done, is probably unique to Kilkenny right now.
Their apprenticeships have lasted longer in the current era, so much so, that the likes of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, supremely talented hurlers like Fennelly, are only gaining a foothold now as they themselves approach their mid-20s.
"It really only happens in Kilkenny these days," figures Maurice Aylward, Fennelly's Ballyhale manager when they won the first of their most recent All-Ireland club titles in 2007.
"Tipperary won an All-Ireland title last September with five U-21s starting and another two coming off the bench. We don't have anyone under 23 making the team on a regular basis."
What Aylward loves about Fennelly is his eye for contact.
"He's the type of player that would go through you rather than around you.
"He looks for physical contact. He knows he can win those battles," says Aylward.
Aylward recalls a collision in a championship match with Dunamaggin that told him everything about the development of the player.
"He came out with a ball out of defence and went straight into contact with an opponent, never thinking of the consequences of being hurt.
"As it transpired he hurt his hand, but it stuck in my mind the way he went for it on that occasion.
"He's like a juggernaut. His improvement over the last two years has been great, but we'd like to think the responsibility he had with the club helped him in that regard.
"He would put you in mind of Frank Cummins," says Aylward.
"Maybe he wouldn't have the same power as Frank. But he is developing it.
"Growing up he wouldn't have had that power, but over the last two or three years, I think that is what has made the difference."
Fennelly's impact off the bench in the 2009 All-Ireland final as captain was the moment his days on the periphery were over.
From that point on he would become the team's first-choice midfielder.
He comes from good stock, of course.
He is the son of Michael Fennelly, one of the seven brothers that backboned Ballyhale Shamrocks when they first dominated the hurling club scene in the early 1980s.
Michael Snr never played championship for Kilkenny and may have been a victim of his own versatility.
But with his son, there should be no such flexibility.
During the league Kilkenny used him at centre-forward for a couple of games, but invariably they were drawn to restoring him to midfield.
"I think he started on the '40' against Tipperary on the opening night of the league, but it was only when he switched that Kilkenny started to get a hold of the game," recalls Adrian Finan, his U-21 manager when he captained the county to an All-Ireland title.
"He was a leader then in 2006, a powerful presence who was always destined for the Kilkenny senior team.
"Why has it taken him so long? You have to look at Michael's situation in the context of the players who have been available to play midfield for the last few years.
"Derek Lyng and 'Cha' Fitzpatrick were hard to dislodge, then Michael Rice came in and won an All Star in 2009.
"That's a serious amount of competition for two places and if you have injuries, well you're going to suffer in that company."
Fennelly's long apprenticeship is over. His graduation to senior partner in 'Kilkenny inc' hasn't taken nearly as long.