The tributes that have been flowing since Monday evening’s announcement that Eoin Kelly has played his last game for Tipperary are proof of his immortal standing within hurling and the gap his departure will leave in the sport.
Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have been lit up in recent days by words of praise from former team-mates and hurling foes alike, clips of some his most outrageous scores and best wishes for the future as the Mullinahone star prepares for a life without inter-county hurling for the first time since he was a teenager.
Often young sportspeople are touted as the “next big thing” only for the potential or the hype to go unfulfilled but since the likes of John Leahy and others predicted great things for the underage Eoin Kelly back in the 1990s, his achievements on the pitch and his leadership and example away from the great cathedrals of hurling only added to his reputation as the years and his career progressed.
Inside the county the tributes have come from Noel McGrath, John O’Dwyer, Brendan Cummins and many others while elsewhere there have been plaudits from no less than Henry Shefflin, Eddie Brennan, Joe Dooley and their ilk who faced the sharpshooter over the last decade and a half.
While captaining Tipperary in 2010 to one of the county’s most memorable All-Ireland triumphs will be recalled by many as a highlight of the great man’s career, there are few honours in the game he did not place on his mantlepiece both at underage and senior level, including five Munster senior titles, six All-Stars and a county senior title with Mullinahone.
The fact that news of his retirement came just five days after similar word from his contemporary and long-time colleague in the forward line John O’Brien, makes the passing of an era all the more stark.
The 32-year-old first made the Tipperary minor panel as a sub-goalkeeper at the age of 15 and also played with distinction for St Kieran’s College in Kilkenny, before debuting for the Tipp seniors in 2000 and winning young hurler of the year awards in both 2001 - when he also won the first of his two senior All-Ireland medals - and 2002.
His 58 championship appearances comprise a record for a Tipperary outfield player while his scoring haul of 21-362 is bettered only by Henry Shefflin and Eddie Keher.
Kelly has revealed he had a hunch on the day of the All-Ireland replay that it could be his last occasion in Croke Park as an inter-county player, before the intervening weeks of deliberation on his future led to this week’s retirement announcement.
The ace forward told The Nationalist yesterday he leaves the Tipperary set-up on “good terms” with Eamon O’Shea and the management but said the lack of game time he had this year was a factor in deciding to retire after a glittering career.
“For all the commitment and everything that’s put into it now, I just felt now is the right time to walk away,” he said. “Look, Tipperary made serious ground this year as well and probably not getting the game time - it’s hard to sit [on the bench] and especially with the competitive edge that comes with being an inter-county player. It’s nice to be involved.”
The Mullinahone man made an appearance in the drawn All-Ireland final against Kilkenny but knew his time was coming to an end after the replay. “I had the little fella [son Conal] on the pitch after the All-Ireland replay and I think that day I was definitely thinking to myself, I won’t be back here again… I wanted the little fella to be at both All-Irelands and there was probably a reason for that. I was thinking, this could be my last day up in Croke Park, and as it turned out it was.”