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The journey of two Kerry hurlers to take centre stage in All-Ireland club final

Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell and Ballyea’s Pat Joe Connolly will fly the flag for the Kingdom at Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day.

THERE WAS ALWAYS something different about Darragh O’Connell, Timmy Weir says.

A dedication to his craft that set O’Connell apart from his peers is the chief facet of his make-up that Weir will always remember from his Abbeydorney days.

Weir has seen plenty of good hurlers hail from the Kerry village and its environs, but O’Connell was special.

In 2008, O’Connell captained Abbeydorney to county minor hurling championship glory.

Weir was guiding the fortunes of the minors but O’Connell’s former team-mate and the club’s current senior hurling team manager Ian Maunsell remembers how an emerging young player effectively took charge of team affairs. That player was O’Connell.

“He nearly took over the training of the team,” Maunsell remembers.

“He nearly took this personally, and he led from the front on everything.”

O’Connell delivered his winning speech ‘as Gaeilge’ after the final. His love of the native tongue stems from his mother, Patsy, a key member of the Ríocht running club in Castleisland who hails from the Dingle peninsula.

Maunsell, a former Kerry senior hurler, remembers O’Connell’s last year with the club, and how he was the team’s sole scorer in a county SHC defeat to Crotta in 2014.

Maunsell also notes one of O’Connell’s trips to America (he has relations in San Francisco), and how he would watch a local American football team train, just to see how they did things.

O’Connell always had pace, Weir and Maunsell confirm, but Maunsell describes how O’Connell stripped himself down to become even faster.

“Darragh was always known as being fast (but) he did a three-year personal training course to come back after than he was the first day. He pushed himself to a higher limit, no drinking or smoking. A complete health freak.”

Ballyea's Pat Joe Connolly (left) and Cuala's Darragh O'Connell will face off against each other in the AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling final.

Weir says: “I was the coach when he was U14, we went to the Féile that year.

“I was still training him when we won the minor championship, he was captain in 2008.

“He worked very hard on his game. Other people would put a lot in on the day of a match but Darragh was preparing the whole time.

“His fitness stood out and he concentrated on that. He got a personal trainer to get that right.

“Obviously, he did a lot of hurling as well, very dedicated. A lot of players in Kerry wouldn’t have that kind of commitment, as regards keeping himself in shape and getting the work done.”

Weir and Maunsell keep in touch with O’Connell still, whenever they can, via text messages and social media.

Darragh O'Connell Darragh O'Connell in action for Kerry in the 2011 Christy Ring Cup final at Croke Park. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Maunsell is travelling to Croke Park for the AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling final, which pits O’Connell’s adopted Dublin club Cuala with Clare outfit Ballyea.

For Weir, it’s a ‘wait and see’ job. A dairy farmer, this is a busy time of year for him and he may have to call in a favour or two on Friday morning.

*****

Darragh O’Connell grew up in a rural area roughly nine miles from Tralee town.

He lived three miles from the village of Abbeydorney, a sparsely populated area but a hurling heartland, nonetheless.

Some youngsters dabble in football but hurling is the dominant game.

When he first came in contact with a young Darragh O’Connell, Timmy Weir knew that there was something special about him.

“Oh yes,” he smiles. “He had the skill and he had a bit of pace.

“But his dedication to getting there was the key thing. You could see it happening alright.”

O’Connell, a 2011 Christy Ring Cup winner with Kerry and a three-time All-Ireland U21 B medallist, made the switch to Cuala in 2015, travel commitments to and from Wicklow and Dublin to the Kingdom proving too arduous.

Darragh O’Connell Darragh O'Connell is now sporting the Sky Blue of Dublin at inter-county level. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He was almost immediately drafted into the Dublin senior set-up by manager Ger Cunningham, and made his debut in a challenge match against Tipperary in May 2015. 

You might think that there would be some grumblings of discontent in Abbeydorney and Kerry, particularly after losing such a stand-out talent.

Not a bit of it, Weir and Maunsell insist. Indeed, before O’Connell left his home club, officials organised a presentation of a signed jersey and a framed picture detailing some of his best moments there.

“He was a major loss,” Weir admits. “But it was tough going, he was coming down to the county training, a lot of travelling.”

And Maunsell also remembers how O’Connell once travelled up and down the country just to attend a 20-minute team meeting.

Peter Williams passes through Abbeydorney The Tour of Ireland cycle race passes through Abbeydorney in 2008. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Weir himself is steeped in Abbeydorney tradition. He was a member of the team that won the county senior hurling championship back in 1974, as a 17-year-old.

Abbeydorney haven’t won a county senior title since but Weir was coaching the team that contested a final in 2005, when Lixnaw won a replay.

“We won a minor in 1971,” says Weir, a virtual encyclopaedia of Abbeydorney hurling matters.

We didn’t win again since 1999, and then it was Darragh’s team in 2008. We haven’t won it since but we won the Féile two years ago for the first time in 40 years.”

Abbeydorney may be a small club but it’s a progressive one.

“Small place, small village, small population,” says Weir.

“Two pubs, two shops, two primary schools. Our numbers would be quite small and while we’d struggle to field a team at underage, we always do. Almost every young fella has to play but they do, and that’s what it boils down to.”

There’s an all-weather pitch in the Abbeydorney GAA grounds, a smaller all-weather training area, astro ball wall and a ball alley too.

“And there’s a bar there as well,” smiles Weir. “We were one of the first rural clubs to have a bar, it’s been there since 1979.”

Darragh O'Connell celebrates at the full time whistle Darragh O'Connell hails Cuala's 2016 Dublin SHC final victory over Kilmacud Crokes. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Maunsell, as well as managing the Abbeydorney seniors, is the club’s vice-chairperson.

He hurled alongside O’Connell for a few years, Maunsell winding down his career as the young protege was starting out on his path.

“He played in every line of the field for Kerry,” says Maunsell. “From corner back to corner forward.

“I’ve gone to the Cuala games, the Leinster club final, I was at the Slaughtneil game and he seems to be improving. He’s getting stronger overhead but he’s probably the most natural hurler you’ll see, the way he comes onto the ball.

“Our minor team in 2008 was nearly unbeatable but Darragh carried them to a different level. He drove them on, virtually took over the training himself. Even Timmy would say that. He made fellas be at training.

Pat Joe Connolly and Rory Dwan Pat Joe Connolly in action for Ballyea against Thurles Sarsfields in the AIB Munster senior club hurling semi-final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“Darragh is the most easy-going fella, you’d talk to him and no matter what you’d say, he’d listen. When it comes to hurling, he’s very serious and he’s proven it.

“The best thing to say about him is that if you were in trouble in a match, he was the man to give the ball to, when you needed something big.”

Maunsell notes, however, that it’s not just O’Connell flying the flag for Kerry on All-Ireland club hurling final day.

In the Ballyea ranks is Pat Joe Connolly, a three-time Kerry SHC winner with Ballyduff who’s now playing club football with Kilmihil and hurling with Ballyea.

Connolly’s a tough bit of stuff, a former juvenile All-Ireland boxing champion who’s adapted quickly to life in Clare.

“He’s a funny character, you won’t see too many Pat Joes around,” smiles Liam Ross, secretary of the Ballyduff club.

Ross explains how Tony Kelly, Ballyea’s Clare star and the 2013 Hurler of the Year, visited Ballyduff recently for a presentation event.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Tony talked about how Pat Joe is after bringing something different to Ballyea,” says Ross.

“And how he’s probably one of the main reasons why they’ve reached the All-Ireland club.

“That, coming from Tony Kelly, says a lot. They’re grateful for him but he’s a big loss to us, and a great gain for Ballyea.”

In his first full season with Ballyea, Connolly helped the club win the county senior hurling title and Munster crown for the first time. And in the battle of the first-time All-Ireland finalists, it’s a Kerry shoot-out between O’Connell and Connolly for Tommy Moore Cup success.

“He (Connolly) won three county titles with us,” says Ross. “He also played in two Munster intermediate finals but we didn’t win either of them.”

In 2011, Ballyduff lost to Limerick outfit Effin, before falling to Jason Forde-inspired Tipperary team Silvermines a year later.

Jason Forde Tipperary's Jason Forde. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“He (Connolly) had a fierce burst of pace,” Ross adds. “In the first few yards, once he was gone, he was gone completely, no catching him.”

In the Munster final victory over Cork’s Glen Rovers, Connolly scored two points, and added two more in the All-Ireland semi-final win against St Thomas’s.

Although he’s been named at corner forward, Connolly operates out around the half-forward line to good effect.

“He’s a great guy,” says Ballyea chairman Paddy Moylan.

“When he came to Ballyea, he didn’t know anyone but he fitted in immediately.

“What stood out was his athletic ability, his ability to read a game and give a pass. You could see that immediately, that there was something different about him.

“And the way he interacts with the rest of the lads, they all like him. He’s brought a bit of freshness as well. He’s a good character, a fun character, and he was a great addition to the club.

A view of the game at Semple Stadium Ballyea saw off Glen Rovers in the Munster final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He’s generally named in the corner,” Moylan acknowledges. “But he seems to perform better in the half-forward line. He has the speed and ability to play almost anywhere but you see more of him when he comes out.”

Moylan recalls Connolly’s first training session with the club, on a harsh winter’s night, with snow on the Kildysart Astro pitch.

“Cold and it wasn’t a nice time to train,” Moylan remembers. “But he got on with it and had a smile.”

At Croke Park, one of the Kerry-men will wear a beaming smile at full-time. Who that is remains to be seen but the prospect of a Kingdom shoot-out was flagged well in advance by seasoned hurling observers in the county.

Ross says: “That’s all the talk around the place at the moment. They’ll all be glued to the TV, anybody not travelling on Paddy’s Day. Darragh’s club is five miles away from us and that was the talk for the last couple of months, wouldn’t it be great if Darragh and Pat Joe were playing against each other at Croke Park? It was hop ball talk at the start – but now it’s become a reality.”


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