Classy, confident, skilled: Kelly's road to greatness
Despite his tender years, uniquely talented star has become face of Clare success – classy, confident and skilled
Jamesie O'Connor tells a story about Tony Kelly, which is more reflective of his personality than his immense raw talent. O'Connor taught him economics in St Flannan's College and the summer after Kelly repeated his Leaving Cert, he appeared at a summer camp in Doora-Barefield.
O'Connor's son, Mark, made himself known to Kelly and thrust his hurley in front of him to autograph. Kelly scribbled his name and the grade he got in economics in the Leaving Cert. He let young O'Connor bring the coded message home to his father.
"He was a good student, but we always had great craic in class," says O'Connor. "Tony was always very steady, solid, a really decent guy. A quality, quality guy."
In the last six years, Clare have produced the most talented generation of young players in their history. The bounty has been so rich that it has provided two different harvests. The players of the 2009 All-Ireland U-21-winning side now provide the steel, while the recent wave from successive All-Ireland U-21 titles have applied the polish. Yet nobody has more elan and sheen and sparkle than Kelly. A rare gem in a row of diamonds.
It is easy to contextualise just how good Kelly actually is. Nobody had ever managed to win Hurler of the Year and Young Hurler of the Year in the same season, but Kelly managed it before he had even turned 20. This is his fourth year playing with the Clare U-21s and he is only a month overage for next year.
"It's easy to forget that Tony was just 19 last year," says O'Connor. "To do what he has done, to play with the composure and class at that age in Croke Park is phenomenal. He just has that grace about him. He has a brilliant temperament and his potential is limitless. I look back and ask myself what was I like at 19? I wouldn't lace his boots."
That grace O'Connor speaks about is never easy to define, but it is Kelly's most identifiable characteristic. His athleticism, balletic balance and raw pace, fused with his skill and class, is an explosive and beautiful cocktail. In last week's Munster U-21 quarter-final against Limerick, he glided around the pitch like an ice skater on an ice rink. Early in the second, he pulled down a long ball one-handed on his stick, turned on the afterburners and drove it over the bar. That fusion of grace and class is what separates Kelly from everyone else.
In Ballyea, a rural club south-west of Ennis, they knew he was special from when he was a toddler. Ballyea minor club president Johnny Hayes' wife Christina used to babysit Kelly. His mother, Marie, would drop him off at 7.15 in the morning and Kelly always had his hurley and ball with him. Hayes would play hurling with him before he would go to work. Kelly still wasn't two.
His father, Donal, was a good hurler himself and he has been a massive influence on his son. He coached him right up through the grades and was always a guiding force in his career. He helped refine and hone his skills and recognise the potential in his balletic feet. "He is always on his toes," Donal Kelly once said about his son. "His heels never touch the ground. They never did."
Hard work and dedication were his mark and his master. Kelly had a target practice set up out the back of his house which he repeatedly practised on.
"You would always see him cycling up past our house going to the hurling field," says Ballyea's Michael O'Neill.
"He really put in the hard work and dedication. That's what makes him stand out from the crowd, but he is still the same fella he was at 13 or 14. He has time for everybody. He is the most grounded fella you will ever meet."
Despite his success and the truckload of individual awards he has accumulated in the last year, Kelly is still the same person; decent, personable, engaging, warm, friendly, humble.
Not long after last year's All-Ireland final, he played a football game with Clondegad against Cooraclare. It was wet and cold and miserable. After all the players had showered and the supporters had gone home, Kelly was still signing autographs on the pitch. Eventually, the Kilmihil groundsman turned off the floodlights so Kelly could get home.
"He is extremely grounded," says Gerry O'Connor, joint-manager of the Clare U-21s. "He has had a girlfriend for the last three or four years. He is not a big socialiser. He is easy-going and will always be stuck in the middle of the fun, but he knows where the line is and will never cross it. The morning after he got his Hurler of the Year accolades, he was back studying in college. There is no ego with Tony. He has excellent people skills and is very mannerly. He is just a genuinely nice guy."
As a player, Kelly is becoming better and more rounded. His tackling and his tracking has already improved. He captained the minors three years ago, but as current captain of the U-21s, he has really embraced the role and assumed more of a leadership presence. Prior to the U-21 game against Limerick, he was more vocal than he had ever been before. He even selected the music for the bus. For the last couple of years, Podge Collins was the spiritual leader of the U-21s. Kelly has now clearly assumed that mantle.
This generation of young players has completely altered the complexion and outlook of Clare hurling and Kelly has been one of the standout architects of the revolution. He even fired one of the first shots. In the closing stages of the 2010 Munster minor championship play-off against Tipperary, Clare had been reduced to 14 men. Tipperary had hit 1-1 to level the game and had all the momentum. Kelly demanded the puck-out from goalkeeper Ronan Taaffe, caught it and drove it over the bar. "Clare never traditionally turned over Tipperary in that manner," says Gerry O'Connor. "But this guy had the balls to do it."
When Clare and Tipperary met in the Munster U-21 final two years later, Kelly delivered one of his finest 30 minutes of hurling. Quiet in the first half, he came out as a third midfielder for the second half and completely ran the show. Tipperary had two players marking him, but it was like trying to hold mercury between their fingers.
He is a unique talent, but as Clare have changed the face of hurling with their unique style, Kelly has been a central component of that change. The different systems which Clare play can only be carried out by players like him who make the systems exactly what they are. Already, he has redefined centre-forward play in the way he comes so deep, breaks at such pace and shoots so accurately when running at such pace.
As Clare set off again on their championship journey on Sunday, Kelly is in so many ways now the face of Clare hurling; confident, classy, highly skilled, highly ambitious, but grounded and down to earth.
"You're talking about a freak of nature here," says Gerry O'Connor. "For a start, a guy this good nearly shouldn't be as sound as he is. Normally, the two don't go together. To be brilliant at sport, you have to be incredibly driven. Tony is very driven, but a lot of the top sportspeople almost have an obsessive, compulsive personality. Tony is not like that. He is laid back and composed. He never gets fazed.
"I suppose he has experienced something that a lot of Clare players had never experienced, in that they are mentally conditioned to win. A lot of these guys have incredible mental strength. But Tony Kelly is the mentally strongest of the lot."
Grace and class –i n so many ways.