Tuesday 20 March 2018

In from cold and ready to make lasting impression

An unlikely twist of fate has pushed goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly back to centre stage in Mayo's bid for glory

‘Robbie Hennelly could so easily have been on the outside looking in’
‘Robbie Hennelly could so easily have been on the outside looking in’

Damian Lawlor

Robbie Hennelly's twitter profile says a lot about the Mayo goalkeeper's attitude to life. Underneath his picture, there's a quote: "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

Hennelly has certainly taken his own course. The Breaffy man broke into the Mayo senior panel in 2010 and made the starting team in 2011, gradually establishing himself as number one and collecting a Connacht senior medal.

He was highly regarded within the squad, both for his talent and his personality, but chipped a bone in his elbow in early 2012 playing for DCU was a setback that ruled him out of all pre-season fare. DCU hammered NUI Maynooth in the Sigerson Cup final, bringing on Hennelly in the closing minutes in a show of the respect they had for him.

As the National League unfolded, though, he was back on the fringes of the Mayo team as David Clarke assumed the number one shirt. Game time was limited and Hennelly's form dipped.

It's only when you revisit his injury worries and the workload he was dealing with at the time that you can appreciate why he was off the pace a little.

Following his graduation from DCU, he began a short-term contract with drinkaware.ie as media and communications officer. Recalling that period in his life in an interview with the Mayo News last year, he conceded that 'there weren't enough hours in the day.'

College life had been hectic enough – aside from his studies and the Sigerson Cup, he chaired the GAA club, appeared in TV3's Take Me Out dating show and ran for student union president. And moving into the workplace provided little relief. With increased travelling commitments and injury disruption, his football suffered. And while the rest of the squad made more sacrifices than any group in the history of Mayo football, Hennelly struggled to find balance in his life.

His work with the industry-funded responsible drinking organisation often entailed evening and weekend commitments involving promotions and campaigns at various festivals, particularly during the summer. Mayo, meanwhile, trained on Tuesday and Friday evenings and had games and ball sessions at weekends. It was a difficult fit.

James Horan was accommodating, and so too were his employers, but Hennelly gave two months rushing from work to training before deciding he'd had enough. He picked up three speeding tickets along the way. He was clamped once for good measure as well.

He pulled the plug in late June, three days after they beat Leitrim in their first championship game of 2012, and told Horan that while it was the most dedicated panel he had ever been involved with, he didn't deem it fair not to be investing 100 per cent like the others.

He'd only got one league game against Down, conceding a goal, and so the writing looked to be on the wall in any case. Clarke was in flying form and Kenneth O'Malley and young Paul Mannion from Mayo Gaels were waiting in the wings for the number 16 shirt. There was no shortage of talent battling for the position.

Hennelly had been a huge presence within the squad and when they relaxed on weekends away and camps he was usually the life and soul of the party; a good singer and a fine man for impressions.

Yet, to the outsider, there was little or no fuss at his withdrawal. Clarke had simply grown into the role and would later be appointed team captain when Andy Moran was injured. Hennelly's departure, meanwhile, was scarcely mentioned. Instead, everyone zoned in on Conor Mortimer's exit from the squad a few weeks later.

Out of sight and out of mind; it was surely a first for Robbie Hennelly. Without him, Mayo won another Connacht title and reached the All-Ireland final. Clarke was only just pipped for an All Star by Paul Durcan. He looked set for residency between the posts but then he ripped his hamstring so severely in this year's Connacht semi-final against Roscommon that he was ruled out of action for 12 weeks and faces a battle to be fit for the bench for next weekend's final with Dublin. The injury was such a shocking one that his hamstring was ripped right off the bone, and he had to wait months for it to heal before he could even do light rehab. The strength is still coming back with Clarke using iso-kinetics to help, but it's only in the past couple of weeks that he's running and kicking again.

O'Malley, Clarke's assured and ultra-reliable understudy, was himself ruled out for two months after suffering ankle ligament damage in a high-octane challenge match with Monaghan.

Paul Mannion remained an option for the management but they opted to bring Hennelly back in from the cold about 10 days before the Connacht final against London.

Straight away, they noticed he was more focused. He worked diligently with goalkeeping coach Peter Burke at every session, only joining the rest of the team for shot-stopping drills.

He was selected for the Connacht final, came through that with no problems and a few weeks later found himself lining out against reigning All-Ireland champions Donegal. In those two games, he managed to establish his presence once more, providing his defence with confidence and his midfield with quality ball. In fact, in those successive fixtures he managed to pick out Aidan O'Shea with nine kick-outs, therefore allowing the influential midfielder to surge into the opposition half to telling effect.

Against Tyrone, Hennelly's handling and kicking were also of the highest quality and he weighed in with a long-distance free in the 48th minute, in the process becoming the team's 19th scorer in this year's championship. He showed absolutely no signs of nerves, admirable considering his last Croke Park appearance had been in Mayo's nine-point loss to Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final.

He's back now for the biggest game of his life – not even a man who thrives on blazing his own trail through life could have foreseen a turnaround in fortunes like that.

If Mayo are to party next Sunday evening, he'll be in the thick of it, singing songs and throwing a few impressions around. He knows he could so easily have been on the outside looking in.

Sunday Independent

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