'Special' Banner side hungry for more - Tony Kelly
THERE'S been no talk of winning the three in-a-row, Tony Kelly insists.
Instead, the Clare U-21 hurlers have been carrying on with the serious business of preparing for Saturday's All-Ireland final. And all the while, they have been trying to drink in their last moments together.
Kelly, along with Colm Galvin, Cathal O'Connell, Aaron Cunningham, Jamie Shanahan and Seadna Morey are the select few who have been there since the beginning when back in 2010, the Clare minors won a Munster title.
As a group they'd win four more provincial crowns as they progressed through the age grades.
On Saturday night, even if they win a third consecutive All-Ireland U-21 title, a five-year journey will come to an end and that will leave a hole.
"We've been around since 2010," said Kelly. "We all know each other. We've been to school in Flannan's the half of us, and the other half probably went to Caimin's.
"That bond has been built over three or four years and to sign off with a win with this group of players would be special.
"We'll all miss this after this week ... the closeness we have, everyone gets on with each other and that helps on the field as well as off."
Last year's All-Ireland final in this grade was the cakewalk it was expected to be. Antrim had shocked Leinster champions Wexford in the semi-final, but they couldn't live with Clare.
Now the Banner face a resurgent Wexford eager to make up for last year's mishap.
The Model county are on the rise and Kelly and Co will hardly need reminding that it was the Leinster men that ended their defence of the Liam MacCarthy Cup after a replay earlier this summer.
At that stage, Clare were rocking and just days later they diced with death in the Munster U-21 semi-final against Tipperary before squeezing through after extra-time. For Kelly, it made their season.
"When Tipp came down to Ennis we knew that we were going to be tested severely and we went four points down in the second half so that's really where the character was tested," he said.
"Luckily the panic button wasn't pushed and we kind of ground it out- we knew when we got back to level terms that we could push on and win the game and that's what we did.
"The battle that night brought the panel closer together. We weren't that used to training with each other.
"Coming up to the week of Championship, that's the only time we got to train together and I suppose getting over that big battle really tested the character of the group.
"From then on relationships have been beginning to build between the new lads that were coming in this year and the old lads that were there."
They seemed to have moved through the gears in the games against Cork and Antrim but Wexford will pose a different test.
The Slaneysiders are one of the few teams this group of Clare players haven't come up against over their years together but Kelly concedes they'll have a physical edge on the Banner.
"I was very impressed with them against Galway in the semi-final. I thought their style of play was absolutely excellent and we're looking forward to another battle like we had in the senior.
"They are physically strong. We saw that against Galway, especially in the air. They were dominant in the air and that was one of the strengths of their senior team as well - being physically strong.
"Look, it's all about not panicking and sticking to our own game-plan and trusting in it that it will work. That's what we have been doing and hopefully our game-plan will work Saturday night as well."
Whatever happens, this group are likely to go down as one of the best teams the county has ever produced. Kelly, though, is not interested in tags, only medals.
"One of the reasons the group is so special is that we're all modest young lads and we don't really get carried away.
"Since the start of the year began we've focused on one game and tried to win that game, and Saturday is no different.
"Within the camp no one is saying about three-in-a-row, everyone is just saying we need to get that big performance out of ourselves. We've prepared well and hopefully that's the way it'll pan out for us on Saturday."
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