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'A powerhouse' and 'a massive influence' - the veteran pair chasing more All-Ireland club glory

Michael Fennelly and Kieran Fitzgerald remain central to the hopes of Ballyhale and Corofin.

Michael Fennelly and Kieran Fitzgerald celebrating last year's All-Ireland club final wins.
Michael Fennelly and Kieran Fitzgerald celebrating last year's All-Ireland club final wins.
Image: INPHO

LAST SUNDAY MORNING the Ballyhale Shamrocks squad trained at their south Kilkenny base.

A week out from an All-Ireland club final date, the session was brought forward to an earlier time of 10am to facilitate one of their players who had another hurling engagement to meet.

Michael Fennelly dashed off the pitch while his team-mates were warming down. He pointed his car in the direction of Navan and got to Páirc Tailteann a half hour before throw-in to manage the Offaly hurlers against Antrim.

Fennelly saw his charges pick up some Leinster pre-season silverware in the form of the Kehoe Cup. Now it is back to the business of playing once more with that date tomorrow in Croke Park when he will take place at the heart of the Ballyhale Shamrocks rearguard.

Next month Fennelly will turn 35. He pulled the plug on his Kilkenny career over two years ago. He has been performing a unique club and county hurling juggling act since taking the managerial reins in Offaly last August.

And yet he remains a critical component of the setup that Ballyhale hope will grasp the Tommy Moore Cup once more.

matthew-ruth-and-michael-fennelly Michael Fennelly in action in last year's Kilkenny senior final.

“A powerhouse (at) centre-back,” says TJ Reid.

“His physicality, rawness, experience, he’s able to position himself in the centre. He’s just savage. If he hadn’t the injuries that he had, he’d still be centre-back for Kilkenny at 34 years of age.

“Unfortunately those injuries forced him to retire. So a massive loss to Kilkenny, and whenever he does retire from Ballyhale, he’ll be a massive hole to fill there at centre-back. His presence and he just demands that, he controls that area very well.”

aib-gaa-all-ireland-club-championships-finals-media-day Ballyhale forward TJ Reid Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

It can’t be easy to maintain that sense of control. Speaking after they had emerged from a gruelling semi-final with Slaughtneil last Sunday week, Fennelly stood on the Páirc Esler pitch and hinted that this is a level of commitment he may not be able to maintain on a long-term basis.

“Look, it’s working okay. Offaly is going okay. We are going okay with the club so, thankfully, it is coming to an end with the club, to be honest.

“The last two weeks now, that possibly might be it now for me but we’ll see – we’ll weigh it up.”

Fennelly was speaking after the latest winning chapter of a supreme club narrative with Ballyhale.

24 hours previously Kieran Fitzgerald was chatting in Cusack Park in Ennis after helping the powerful force that is Corofin get the business done in yet another All-Ireland football semi-final.

The prospect of completing three-in-a-row, an unprecedented feat on the national club stage, was raised.

kieran-fitzgerald-and-kieran-histon Kieran Fitzgerald in action for Corofin against Nemo Rangers. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Honest to God, at the same time it was like the record there in Galway this year, it has never been spoken about,” remarked the 39-year-old.

“We just want to keep winning games. At the end of our careers we will sit down and see what we have.”

If he ever reaches that point of course.

“It is coming very quickly,” replied Fitzgerald with a laugh.

“We are where we are now and it is an All-Ireland final.”

It will not be a novel occasion then today for Fennelly and Fitzgerald but you sense it will be cherished. Fennelly, with eight All-Ireland senior triumphs with Kilkenny and three All-Star awards to his credit, will be appearing in his fifth Croke Park club final.

Fitzgerald, who reached the summit with Galway in 2001 and won an All-Star that season, will be featuring in his fourth decider.

Neither have lost a game at this stage of the club championship. Ballyhale’s team has evolved yet Fennelly has been one of the constants driving them to glory in 2007 against Loughrea, 2010 against Portumna, 2015 against Kilmallock and 2019 against St Thomas. He will captain the team today, just like he did last season. In conjunction with younger brother Colin, the offensive weapon that punches holes in defences, they are upholding a rich Fennelly family tradition that has been at the core of Ballyhale’s wellbeing.   

Despite his playing duties, he has forged a reputation in the coaching game, spending some time in the background with the Kildare footballers last year. That has not surprised Reid, a long-time comrade in club and county ranks.

“Look, he’s very much into it. He has the experience and knowledge, obviously his work allows him to fulfil those areas and those duties, and he has an understanding wife which is most important as well!

“But yeah, you’ll sense that over the last number of years. Speaking to him, and the approach he brings to training, you’ll sense that he was going in that direction because of the little bits of principles and values that he brings to training.”

In Corofin circles, Fitzgerald is revered. It’s almost two decades since his standout success with Galway yet he is still going strong.

He’s needed to persevere though, the trophy he craved taking a while to arrive. Corofin got the hang of dominating in Galway and managed to emerge from Connacht. But they lost a pair of All-Ireland semi-finals to Kilmacud Crokes (2009) and St Gall’s (2010), both the ultimate kingpins those years.

There were provincial disappointments after that until February 2015 when the current crew at last booked a place in an All-Ireland final when they took down St Vincent’s.

Donall Farmer’s shot for Inpho below of Fitzgerald at the final whistle of that game in Tullamore captured what it meant to him to reach a club decider. 

conor-cunningham-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-kieran-fitzgerald Kieran Fitzgerald celebrates Corofin's 2015 semi-final victory over St Vincent's. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It was the start of a remarkable run of glories when they lifted the Andy Merrigan Cup that March at the expense of Slaughtneil. The last two campaigns have culminated with the dismantling of Nemo Rangers and Dr Crokes.

Since his 34th birthday Fitzgerald has picked up medals on the Galway (5), Connacht (4) and All-Ireland (3) stages. It’s been an extraordinary spell at a juncture when most would enter the winding down phase of their careers.

But he has remained a key defensive anchor from the start rather than a peripheral figure. He talked after the recent victory of Nemo Rangers about how Corofin fitted into the position of great under-achievers until Stephen Rochford took over to kick-start an era of control that has been maintained and enhanced under the guidance of Kevin O’Brien.

The longevity of a dressing-room pillar like Fitzgerald is critical to that.

“Look, his sheer commitment to the lifestyle and the shape he keeps himself in is unbelievable,” says Liam Silke, his club-mate and the Galway defender.

“I know Gerry Burke back in 1980 was 38 or 39 playing in an All-Ireland final as well. Those type of players don’t come around that often. He’s still going out and putting in great performances at full-back so it’s hard to see when he’ll stop but he’s still going.

“He’s a massive influence. Everyone would look up to him and whenever he speaks everyone would be listening. He’s our rock at full-back that we know we can depend on him and it’s on and off the pitch like that.

“It’s incredible that he’s been able to go for so long. He’s shown that if you look after yourself as well that is possible but maybe not everyone has the same DNA as him.”

aib-gaa-all-ireland-club-championships-finals-media-day Corofin defender Liam Silke

Fennelly and Fitzgerald have been models of resilience, the former for coping with a succession of defeats before the modern breakthrough and the latter for coping with a series of injury setbacks to rehabilitate and still manage to play on.

They keep going. There may not be many more All-Ireland final days for them to grace but the pursuit of silverware is the objective they will single-mindedly focus on today.

New year, new decade and yet two glittering club GAA careers continue to endure.

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Fintan O'Toole

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