Kelly basks in 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity
As Tony Kelly soaks in the novelty of seeing Ballyea's stars of the future honing their skills off the wall at every senior hurling training session over the winter, he realises that today's All-Ireland semi-final clash with St Thomas offers them "a chance of a lifetime".
Kelly is usually knee-deep in league preparation with Clare but the winter slog has been replaced with giddy excitement and a "uniqueness" taking over the parish for the past three months. And having come this far they're hoping to "prolong it into March".
It's been a whirlwind period for the Banner side with their maiden Clare and Munster titles secured in quick succession and the 23-year-old knows that they might never get the opportunity to line out in Croke Park again so Robbie Hogan's men intend on seizing it.
"If you told me this time last year I'd be preparing for an All-Ireland club semi-final, I'd have told you you were mad. When we started out, there wasn't much talk of winning a county final, let alone going on to represent Munster in an All-Ireland series," Kelly says.
"We may never get to a county semi-final, let alone an All-Ireland semi-final, again. That's just the way sport goes. When you get this far, you've got to knuckle down and realise this is our only chance. That realisation hit home coming back from the Christmas break.
"This is our one chance with this group of players - we've never had a group of players like this before. There is no guarantees that we'll ever be successful again. We're very aware that we have to make our chance count."
While the Banner's All-Ireland success four years ago, which followed with Kelly scooping the Young Hurler and Hurler of the Year awards, was exceptional, nothing compares to club success and sharing that joy with those you shared your childhood with.
A picture of Kelly embracing his father Donal immediately after their provincial success - both wearing woolly black and amber Ballyea hats - was symbolic of the raw passion of the club scene for the magnificent midfielder.
"When you win with your county it's absolutely fantastic but when you win with your club, especially when you're not supposed to win, it's probably more satisfaction for yourself and your family," the AIB Munster Player of the Year says.
"Celebrating after, you're with family - mother, father, cousins, people you've grown up with. It is extra special. You're surrounded by people you know so well. That five or 10 minutes on the field after, to see the joy that it brings to those people you know so well within your own community is fantastic."
Trying to balance Ballyea's run with Fitzgibbon Cup duties with UL, where he studies business, is a "juggling act" at this particularly busy time of year and Kelly, who played for the Limerick college last week, believes the calendar year club championship would help to clear up the fixture mess.
"It is a long year. Our club players started last January and they are going right the way through until February. There isn't much break for them. Win or lose, they're preparing for May again. So it is a roll-on of a year, depending on how far you get," he says.
Only the 2013 All-Ireland champions St Thomas stand in their way of a fairytale final appearance, but with Galway captain David Burke in their ranks, as well as Conor Cooney, Kelly knows they will have to earn it.
"The most impressive thing about them is their collectiveness as a group and willingness to work for one another. They work savagely hard and outside of that they have the hurlers to back it up. That's what we pride ourselves on as well, all working hard and putting in the hard graft. I think it's going to come down to the last five or ten minutes."