Eoin Kelly - an underage prodigy who became a true colossus of the game




Eoin Kelly celebrates one of his many championship goals for Tipperary in a glittering career.
It’s quickly becoming the season of retirements. Kilkenny led the way and now we’re playing catch-up with John O’Brien and Eoin Kelly bowing out after distinguished careers. Others may follow.

It’s quickly becoming the season of retirements. Kilkenny led the way and now we’re playing catch-up with John O’Brien and Eoin Kelly bowing out after distinguished careers. Others may follow.

First we had four familiar Kilkenny names heading for the exit. Goalie, David Herity, lost out to Eoin Murphy this year and obviously saw no comeback prospects. Brian Hogan’s decision came after a season where his tenancy at number six always looked insecure; his demotion for the All Ireland replay probably decided his fate. He’s fortunate that the late free in the drawn game wasn’t his swan song.

Tommy Walsh is undeniably the most decorated player thus far to depart the Kilkenny set-up – we still await word on Shefflin. Tommy could certainly elicit strong feelings from the fans on both sides with that mixture of incredible ability and waspish temperament. He’ll undoubtedly be enrolled as one of the truly greats of the game.

Aidan Fogarty tortured many a defence with those loping runs. He contradicted all coaching manuals with that unorthodox grip, but he exemplified the value of substance over style.

These withdrawals from Cody’s camp shared the limelight with John O’Brien who decided to end his Tipperary career at the same time. No wonder Eddie Brennan could quip that Kilkenny can even beat us in retirements!

The warm response to Johno’s exit illustrated the popularity of the Toomevara man. His club mightn’t always be the most popular but Johno had an honesty about him which was endearing. Shefflin in his tribute referred to that ‘paw’, which for me was one of the highlight qualities of his hurling. Interesting that a Kilkenny opponent should isolate that aerial ability; it’s a highly-prized skill down Noreside and one that we regularly struggle to match. Johnno was Kilkenny-like in that regard.

His club career coincided with a golden era for Toomevara. He won seven county senior medals and amazingly was voted man-of-the-match in three of those finals. He was also the RTE man-of-the-match in the 2008 Munster final against Clare.

A serious car smash at one stage threatened to end his career but with typical courage he battled back and won his second All Ireland medal in 2010. Over fourteen years with the county seniors he made thirty-six appearances and scored 3-45. It’s quite a record.

Yet it’s a record that looks somewhat modest beside that of Eoin Kelly. Then again the Mullinahone man stands apart as a colossus of Tipperary hurling. Kelly was the underage prodigy who made his senior debut a year ahead of John O’Brien and proceeded to establish himself as one of the top players of his generation – or any generation for that matter.

Four years as a minor hinted at the budding talent that was emerging. Then came the senior debut as an eighteen year old against Galway in the 2000 All Ireland quarter-final. By age twenty-four he had twice been young player of the year as well as collecting five All Star Statuettes; his sixth came in 2010 when he captained that memorable thwarting of Kilkenny’s five-in-a-row.

His was a career that made him one of the most feared forwards in the game. In sixty-three appearances for Tipperary he clocked up an amazing 21-368. Arguably his best hurling was done by his mid-twenties and his career hit a plateau thereafter; 2010 was something of a last great hurrah.

I suspect Eoin would list the ’02 county title win among his career highlights; he scored 2-7 and won the man-of-the-match award in that replayed final with Sarsfields.

He may not have been the speediest inter-county player but his other qualities more than compensated. He had that stocky, firm-set build that could take the hardest hits from any backman, but above all it was those elastic wrists that made him so lethal. There was a hard edge to his play too as any of his opponents will remind you and I suppose he just had the entire package. Definitely among the best I’ve ever seen.

These retirements were not unexpected and I suppose they throw the spotlight on a few others who may also be contemplating stepping aside. Paul Curran hasn’t made his intentions known yet and Conor O’Mahony is also thought to be mulling over his future. Lar Corbett, it seems, is staying on but I’ll be surprised if Eoin Kelly is the last retirement we see ahead of a new season.

Speaking of the new season the players had a meeting with management last weekend where individuals were given their winter programmes ahead of collective training in the New Year. This time last year we had a number of challenge games but the 2014 season went exceptionally late so the new one is coming up fast. The team travels to Dubai at the end of this month and once January arrives the action kicks off. There’s the opening round of the Waterford Crystal on January 9 against MI of Limerick and that same weekend Liam Dunne and Wexford come to Cashel for a fund raising challenge.

A number of new players have been given winter programmes as a precursor to being tried out later. Clonoulty’s Sean Maher is among the list as are Liam Treacy of Loughmore and David Butler of Drom/Inch. It’s no surprise that the management seems to be eyeing up strongly built forwards. Joe O’Dwyer of Killenaule has also being called in, though breaking into the scene as a half back won’t be easy.

A player not on the list is Colin O’Riordan. He travelled to Boston as an All Star replacement and it looks likely that football will be his priority game in the immediate future. Perhaps that’s no surprise given his background though the hurling fraternity had been hoping he’d commit to that code. The dual option I assume is a non-starter and in any case there is a widespread feeling that O’Riordan would need total commitment to hurling in order to make the cut.

News on Loughmore’s John Meagher seems to be more optimistic from a hurling perspective. He’s missed most of this season but is reportedly on the way back and likely to commit to hurling.

A player we are unlikely to see in action early in the New Year is Mickey Cahill. He’s facing knee surgery for that ailment which hindered his hurling all season; he looks set for a considerable lay off. They might not appreciate it in Thurles but Sarsfields’ exit from the club championship may be the salvation of Cahill’s career.

As we head into the Christmas season it’s that time of year when the printing presses are busy getting their latest products on the shelves for the seasonal market. GAA publications are growing in number as players and managers can’t resist the temptation to tell their stories.

Readers of this column will know that I’m not a great fan of these offerings; too many have been abandoned after a few dull chapters. Sometimes, however, one arrives that offers something different and in that category I’d list a hefty tome called ‘Hell for Leather’.

It’s the product of Dermot Crowe and Ronnie Bellew who have assembled, as the blurb on the cover states, the ‘100 games that shaped and transformed hurling’. It’s a collection then of one hundred of the most significant hurling games stretching from the initial All Ireland back in 1887 to the 2013 All Ireland replay between Cork and Clare.

Inevitably Tipperary features prominently in the collection, which is why it will interest my audience. And it’s not just a catalogue of games. There are well researched accounts with interesting slants and liberal use of quotes and references. Besides it’s one of those books that you can dip in and out of with each chapter a stand-alone item. Messrs (no pun) Crowe and Bellew have done a fine job so I happily recommend it.

Finally Tipperary GAA last week mourned the passing of former Munster Council representative, Liam O’Dwyer, of Boherlahan. For many years he faithfully served the county on the provincial body beside his old friend, the late Mick McCarthy, Moyle Rvs. They both now survey the GAA scene from the great beyond. Our sympathies to the bereaved and peaceful rest to the departed.