Colm Keys KERRY and the GAA world in general were shocked yesterday to learn of the sudden death of legendary centre-back Tim Kennelly. Kennelly, who was 51, died at his home in Listowel of a suspected heart attack.
Tributes poured in for a man who was fondly known as 'Horse' because of his immense natural strength. He won five All-Ireland medals (1975, '78, '79, '80 and '81) and captained Kerry to victory over Dublin in 1979.
He was 'man of the match' in the All-Ireland finals of 1980 and '81 but wrapped up his inter-county career before the great Kerry team had added three more titles from 1984 to '86. He has four Railway Cup medals with Munster and was an All-Star in 1979 and '80.
"He was the last of the old-style stopper centre-backs," recalled Kerry playing colleague Pat Spillane last night. Tim is the first of the great Kerry team of the 1970s and '80s to pass away, a point that was starkly made by Spillane.
His former Kerry manager Mick O'Dwyer said he was "shocked and saddened" to hear of the death of "a great friend and a great player."
"He was a real nice guy, a man a lot of people could call a friend. He was undoubtedly one of the toughest Kerry players ever but he used his strength in the right way," recalled O'Dwyer.
Kennelly's sons have carried on his playing legacy with distinction. Noel won an All-Ireland medal with the Kingdom in 2000 but has been badly affected by injuries since 2001 and has recently been showing firm signs of a return to form.
Tim, who had a heart condition, was present at last Sunday's north Kerry championship semi-final as Noel starred in Listowel's win over Ballylongford.
Noel's younger brother, Tadhg, made history in September, two days before Kerry's defeat in the All-Ireland final, when he became the first Irishman to win an AFL title with Sydney Swans.
Tim Kennelly was in Australia with his wife Nuala and family to witness Tadhg's historic achievement and was a regular visitor Down Under as he drew immense pride from his son's progress.
Tadhg has been in Australia for the last five years but had been making plans to return home to Listowel permanently, citing his father's legacy of All-Ireland wins as one of the driving factors. Tadhg was contacted in Australia with the news and is currently on his way home.
Tim Kennelly rose to prominence with an All-Ireland-winning U21 team in 1973 and was introduced to the senior team for his championship debut a year later. By 1975, O'Dwyer, who had just taken over, installed him as his defensive linchpin and though he contrasted in style with his rival centre-back Kevin Moran during those epic battles with Dublin, he was nonetheless effective.
"He was a no-nonsense defender," recalled Spillane. "He got the ball, there was no messing around and he delivered it directly. He was as strong a player as we had. He wasn't known as 'Horse' for nothing but he was a cool character. I don't ever recall him losing his temper."
O'Dwyer recalled his great individual battles with Dublin captain Tony Hanahoe as being a special memory from that era. "To me, he was an inspiring captain in 1979, everything you would want from a leader on the field."
Kennelly remained great friends with Hanahoe and when the Listowel Emmets club had a tribute night for their famous football son two years ago Hanahoe was one of the special guests.
Kennelly drifted away after the 1982 defeat to Offaly that denied Kerry the coveted five-in-a-row but continued to play club football into his 30s.
"I suppose he felt he had a lot achieved by then. Even though he was still in his late 20s, he felt he had enough," said O'Dwyer.
Kerry County Board chairman Seán Walsh expressed his shock and sadness at his untimely death. "On the field he was a colossus, off the field he was hugely popular with everyone," said Walsh. "Our thoughts and prayers are at this time with his wife, Nuala, sons Noel and Tadhg, daughter Joanne, his mother Margaret, brothers and sisters."
GAA president Seán Kelly also expressed sympathy and spoke of his legendary status in Kerry and beyond.