'That's four young lads that would be still be hurling on our team' - Memory of lost friends pushes Fennelly on
Triumph and tragedy have been the lot of Ballyhale Shamrocks for a decade. Alongside their All-Ireland, Leinster and Kilkenny hurling wins, there is a parallel story of tragedy and grief.
On December 23, 2011, Martin Duggan (19) and Seán Malone (18) were killed in a car accident. Malone was captain of the club's minor team while Duggan had led the minor side the previous year. "They were both playing on the club under-21 team with me at the time," recalls Colin Fennelly.
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In April of last year another playing member of the club, Eoin Doyle (24) was killed in a motorcycle accident. His first cousin and best friend Eugene Aylward (23) died in a car accident in October.
"It's just fierce disheartening for the club," says Fennelly. "The two lads, Eoin and Eugene, were huge personalities, they would always be there, smiling and having the craic. It's a massive drive for us to do everything we can for the families - the smile you bring to their faces is probably the biggest thing. I think about five days after Eugene passed, we played Clara out in Danesfort and we barely got through that game.
"His family were just over to the side as we were warming down. They were just all there together and they were clapping.
"Seeing the family there together, clapping us and seeing that slight smile on their faces, it motivates you to drive things on. We keep the lads' jersey in the dressing room for every training session and every match and it's just a huge drive," says the current All Star.
"The club certainly doesn't forget. That's four young lads that would be still be hurling on our team."
Viewed in the context of the tragedies which have hit the club, losing this year's All-Ireland inter-county final to Tipperary seems trivial.
"You come to terms with (the loss). It's in the back of our minds and it will certainly be there when we go back playing with Kilkenny next year. I certainly don't dwell on it but I will probably learn from it. It was a huge disappointment to get that far and lose the way we did. There's nothing we can do about it and there's no point holding regrets about it.
"I never look back on matches regardless of how I play or what the result is. Some team managements would urge you to look back on mistakes but I just absolutely hate looking back on matches."
Since leaving the Army in 2017 and securing work in the private sector, Fennelly has been living in Lucan. So for the first time in his hurling career he commutes to either Kilkenny city when he is training with the county team or Ballyhale for club duties. But his Kilkenny colleague Richie Hogan has been making the journey for the best part of a decade. "He put me in my place fairly quickly so I had to stop whinging," says Fennelly. "Still, the travelling was a shock to the system."
Defending All-Ireland champions Ballyhale are 1/14 favourites to secure a tenth provincial title against Carlow minnows St Mullin's this afternoon. Yet their training facilities are basic - they don't have a floodlit pitch which means during the winter months they have to rent training facilities.
"We have been in Mooncoin, Danesford, Dunmore and we were even up in Carlow once or twice. Whoever will take us in we're happy."
Manager Henry Shefflin has made a seamless transition from star player to team manager. Under his watch, Ballyhale are unbeaten in championship hurling.
"Henry was very good regarding where our frame of mind was at after we came back following the All-Ireland final. He probably knew what we were thinking. He knows by the look of us whether we need time off. And if he gives us time off because he knows we will do the work in the background and we'll be ready for a match.
"Mentally we're used to the favourite's tag so we just ignore it. We just stick to the same game plan. We do our video analysis and we have our team talk and train hard. Last week at training Henry even pulled us in and said 'this isn't good enough, it's too soft'. And it made a huge difference and he was right to do it. Henry had huge respect when he was a player and he now has massive respect as a manager.
"We listened to what he said in the dressing room when he was a player and we now listen to him as manager.
"He doesn't talk for the sake of it and obviously I'm enjoying playing under him because we are winning."
Colin's older brother Michael is double-jobbing this weekend. Yesterday he made his managerial debut as Offaly boss in the Kehoe Cup. This afternoon he takes his place at centre-back on the Ballyhale team.
"Michael has taken a big plunge and it will be interesting to see how he gets on in Offaly. Everything he did playing-wise he put massive planning into it. I'm probably lucky to learn from him because I would be slightly the opposite. I would just turn up and play whereas he has everything planned. He has put a huge amount of planning and effort into Offaly so hopefully it goes well."
And in the unlikely event of Kilkenny facing Offaly in the near future in a meaningful match, will he have divided loyalties?
"You'd always hope we would do well no matter what, but hopefully on the day the best team wins," he concluded.
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