The turning point for us was beating Galway -- Kelly
Banner ace tells Martin Breheny how victory over Tribes sparked Clare march to glory
Beating Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final was the spur that led to Clare glory this year, according to Hurler of the Year Tony Kelly.
The 19-year-old Ballyea man, who became the first player to win both the senior and Young Hurler of the Year awards in the same season, believes that overcoming the Tribesmen in July steeled Clare into believing that they could turn 2013 into a special season.
"The turning point for us was beating Galway. We had beaten Waterford in the Munster championship but then went out badly to Cork. We came through the qualifiers and we knew that if we took a big scalp, we might get on a bit of a run. That's what happened against Galway and later on," said Kelly.
He has ended the year in a position that neither he, nor Clare supporters, deemed all that likely last January.
While it was clear that Clare were making substantial progress under Davy Fitzgerald, it was thought improbable that they would be sufficiently mature to challenge the superpowers this year.
However, Kelly and his colleagues broadened their game into an expansive dimension that eventually led them to triumph when they beat Cork in the All-Ireland final replay.
"Not many of us thought we'd be in Shanghai (as All Stars) at the end of the year," he said.
"It tops off a fantastic year for us. It's good to meet players from other counties -- we've been long enough trying to cut the heads off each other in league and championship."
It's all a fairytale for Kelly and the younger wing of the Clare team who have experienced major success so quickly in careers that are destined to have an extended run.
"It's great to experience this because there are lads who we looked up to when we were U-16 or 17. Now we're playing against them" said Kelly.
The Clare ace is enjoying the celebration period, knowing that, once the Banner return to training for 2014, the pressure will return immediately.
"He (Davy Fitzgerald) will have the page turned over pretty soon when we come back. Once the National League starts it's a completely new season -- there will be nothing spoken about last year. It will be back down to business straight away," said Kelly.
Having become the youngest Hurler of the Year since Brian Corcoran in 1992, Kelly is aware of the challenges that lie ahead, but will approach them on the positive basis that that took him so far, so quickly.
"Other guys like Joe Canning have had to deal with that pressure since the first year they came in," he said.
"I'm sure Davy and the management will have a trick or two up their sleeve to try and counteract it. It would be worse if teams weren't looking at you -- then you'd be doing something wrong, so I suppose I am doing something right.
"You will have to deal with all that -- it's part of the game. The thing about Clare now is we haven't just one or two forwards. If you take one forward out of it, another lad can step up to the plate, like Shane O'Donnell did in the All-Ireland final."
Despite predictions to the contrary, Kelly doesn't believe that other counties will attempt to imitate the style that took Clare to All-Ireland glory.
"I think every team has their own style. If you look at Tipperary and Kilkenny, they can hurl but they have physical strength as well," he said. "Cork are similar to us and always base their teams on skill and speed and fast ball to the forwards.
"Every county plays to its strengths, so I don't think the likes of Tipp, Galway, Kilkenny or others will be changing their game to try and beat us."
Kelly is part of an All Star selection, drawn from this and last year's winners, plus replacements, who will play an exhibition game in Shanghai tomorrow.