Tony Kelly's natural talent can derail Leesiders, insists clubmate Tony Griffin
Banner great marvels at natural grace and exceptional ability of his fellow Ballyea star, writes Liam Kelly
FORMER Clare All Star Tony Griffin is rooting for his club colleague Tony Kelly in the replay against Cork on Saturday.
The two Tonys are members of the Ballyea club which has traditionally been overshadowed by the larger Clarecastle outfit near Ennis, but Davy Fitzgerald's commitment to youth has put Ballyea on the hurling map.
Apart from the wonderfully talented Kelly, Ballyea has produced two other members of the Clare All-Ireland U-21 winning team – Paul Flanagan and Jack Rowe.
Win or lose against Cork, Tony Griffin is already proud of the accomplishments of the Ballyea players.
"I remember Tony (Kelly), Jack Browne, Paul Flanagan, these guys who are on the U-21s now, all pucking around, and virtually living at the pitch," he said.
"I'd be training with Clare and I'd go up to the pitch to take frees on my own and these would be the guys pucking the ball back to me or they'd be just pucking around themselves playing into one goal while I'd be playing on my own at the other end.
"And then Tony blossoming into the player he is, has been a real joy."
Griffin highlights Kelly's natural athleticism as being his main attribute. His running style is reminiscent of Cork great Sean Og O hAilpin. He is highly skilful and also possesses a calm demeanour on the pitch.
"If you look at Tony, he went from being a boy to a man well before his age. I remember seeing him at the pitch one night, just running.
"I studied bio-mechanics at university in Canada and looking at Tony's running style, I remember saying that the last guy I remember covering ground so beautifully was Sean Og (O hAilpin).
"Then he played senior with me that year and I was very impressed.
"There's a few things that set Tony apart – his movement, his athleticism, which is genetic. You can't train that into a guy. Usually they have it at a young age or they don't, that pure athleticism.
"His hand-eye coordination is exceptional, his movement is exceptional and then he's just got this lovely mental state that he's so relaxed when he's playing.
"If he evolves his game and tries to develop new aspects to his game, he can only get better," said Griffin.
Now 32, Griffin was a ground-breaker for the club when he became the first Ballyea man to play senior championship hurling for the Banner.
Little did Griffin realise that while he was concentrating on his own hurling career, the kids in the Ballyea club were watching his progress and dreaming of the day, when they, too, would wear the Banner jersey.
Tony Kelly spoke of the example set by 'the Griff' who is now a team-mate on the Ballyea senior team when Griffin's work with young people's charity SOAR permits him time to play.
"Growing up, he (Griffin) was THE player in the club," said Kelly. "He put Ballyea on the map. He was one of the first lads in the club to play for Clare.
"But he's come back in now, he's back playing with us and as he says himself, 'puck it to the younger lads and let me fill in a position', so yeah, he was a big influence on all of us growing up.
"He was the ultimate professional. He always kept his head down and worked hard.
"He reaped the rewards and got an All Star as well and played on big days. Hopefully, the Ballyea lads can follow him in what he has done."
Ironically, Griffin came close to being part of an opposition back-room team as he was with Dublin throughout this year's campaign.
In one sense, Cork upsetting the Dubs in the semi-final prevented a Ballyea clash of interests, so now Griffin's focus is on seeing Clare get an All-Ireland title.
"It's a hard one to call. I was involved with Dublin this year in the background and when I saw Dublin and Cork, it was such a physical contest, I wondered would Clare stand up to, or were they ready for Cork's physicality.
"In fact, Cork weren't ready for Clare's speed.
"Now I wonder if Cork, having experienced it once, will come to terms with Clare's pace and ferocious activity around the pitch.
"So much is going to come down to the breaks, but whatever happens in the All-Ireland final, there's an All-Ireland in that team in the next two or three years.
"If it's not next year, it's the year after because they're so hungry to play the game," said Griffin.