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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019

The incredible rise of Conor Whelan and the cousin's memory he carries on his skin

Conor Whelan has been a revelation for Galway this season.

Conor Whelan in possession during the All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Tipperary.
Conor Whelan in possession during the All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Tipperary.

FOLLOWING A RECENT club game between two neighbouring sides, Galway hurler Conor Whelan stepped into the dressing room of the losing team to say a few words.

He had just led Kinvara to victory over Kilbeacanty in an intermediate clash, but the result was negligible compared to the personal significance of the match for Whelan.

Kilbeacanty is the homeland of his cousin, and former Galway hurler Niall Donohue, who passed away in 2013.

Whelan wanted to honour the club that was at the centre of Niall’s life throughout his short life of 22 years, and according to Kilbeacanty chairman Justin Fahy, Whelan paid the ultimate tribute to his cousin’s memory.

“Conor on and off the field that day showed pure class to Kilbeacanty,” he told The42.

“He was outstanding on the day but he was holding back and you’d know that he has a sort of a grá for Kilbeacanty, obviously after what has happened.

“He came into the dressing room after the match and said a small few words but it just meant a lot to Kilbeacanty.

“When we’re travelling to matches now, we relate to Conor so much as we would have related to Nialli and that’s the connection between the two of them.

When we see Conor on the field, of course we think of Nialli. And they have very similar traits and very similar characters. In terms of hurling, I think they have it all.”

Whelan’s rise

The progression of Conor Whelan’s hurling career has been underpinned by a succession of impressive individual feats.

He was first called into the Galway senior panel two years ago as an 18-year-old, and was awarded his debut in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork. He came away from that first competitive outing with a personal tally of 1-2.

Despite tasting defeat in the All-Ireland decider against Kilkenny later that year, he finished the campaign with an All-Star nomination.

Now in his third season with the seniors, Whelan has already established himself as an integral part of the team, whose performances this year make him a strong contender for Hurler of The Year.

His scoring input has been consistently good, and has amassed 0-16 from play so far this season.

Conor Whelan Source: Tallowman GAA Youtube Channel

At one stage during their All-Ireland semi-final, he was the highest scoring player from play on the pitch with 0-3. He tagged on another point before the end to cap off a neat display of point-taking.

But Whelan’s expressive brand of hurling is mainly characterised by his pace, work-rate and nimble stick-work.

We’ve seen these qualities on display throughout the season, but most notably in one particular incident during the latter stages of that All-Ireland semi-final victory against Tipperary.

After collecting a pass from a sideline puck, Tipp’s Michael Cahill was winding up to hit a long-range effort.

Whelan was a good distance away when the ball arrived, but he made a surging run across to get a hook in and prevent a score. The execution was perfect, and the ball skidded away to safety.

Qualities such as this are rooted in Whelan’s youth, and the hours he spent at the GAA pitch in Kinvara. According to club chairman Garret Byrne, Whelan was a frequent visitor to the spot.

“The lads in his townland used to walk up an old bothairín,” he told The42, ”and you’d often see them coming across the fields. Sometimes you’d wonder how they got there because they weren’t getting dropped there.

“He would always have been hanging around the fields back then if there was something on, like if the seniors were training. Conor would be there with the other lads pucking the ball around.”

He continued: “His skill level was always a level above everybody else from about U10 really. He was always that bit better in his skill level the whole way through. Even now at U21, he’s that bit more advanced or developed and he’s one of the top U21 hurlers in the country.

“He kept on accelerating and getting better and better whereas other lads went along at maybe not the same pace as him.”

Whelan’s rapid development culminated in him getting the call-up to the Kinvara seniors at just 16, where he immediately attracted the attention of opposing teams.

Byrne recalls hearing a confession from former Galway manager John McIntyre about how his Castlegar side needed to subdue Conor when they took on Kinvara after his arrival to the senior circuit.

“I remember that game and he got hit hard because they had to stop Conor Whelan.

He takes the hits but he just rubs them off. These would have been hits from big serious grown men at senior championship hurling in Galway and he was still only 16.

“He nearly won the game for us in the last puck of the game. He was the live wire and our main forward ever since then.”

The Big Time

Former manager Anthony Cunningham was the one who invited the teenager from Kinvara into the Galway squad in 2015, and subsequently made the decision to start him in an All-Ireland championship game.

Cunningham had been observing Whelan’s development with interest from as early as minor level and was intrigued by what he saw.

Any doubts about prematurely introducing the youngster to the senior ranks soon vanished when he saw the confidence that Whelan exuded among the more seasoned members of the panel.

Speaking to The42, Cunningham admitted that this was a player he needed in his charges.

“You’d swear he’d been around the place for years because he had no problem slagging lads off and having the craic during down time.

“But when it was serious, his application and his interest to learn as much as he could as fast as he could, was second to none.

I think his confidence that he showed when he joined the panel is what you’re really looking for in a young guy coming through.

“Some guys coming in are quite nervous or it takes them a couple of years to get into the system. He had so much confidence, in a nice and proper way. You could never say that he was cocky or a show-off. He has great spirit and great character.”

Cunningham could see that Whelan was undaunted by the sudden step-up to senior hurling, which gave him plenty to think about as the All-Ireland quarter-final loomed.

And despite not having any National League hurling in his legs, Whelan was making a strong plea for a starting jersey.

Normally coming up to those matches, or in the summer months of training, we’d normally play a lot of training matches and we would have pitted him against our first choice corner-backs. We played a training game in Thurles in preparation of our quarter-final game against Cork and he was nearly unmarkable, he was flying it.

“He was picking up scores, he was extremely skillful and his accuracy is the other side of his game. What he showed when he was given the chance of being extremely tricky, is what you’d want from an inside forward.

“He was always looking for goal and always looking to maximise his option and taking the best option.

“He was always looking for the goal chance and if that wasn’t on, he always had left and right and a really high level of accuracy and skill.”

Garret Byrne can remember seeing that sense of awareness to take the right option in Whelan’s game long before he reached inter-county potential.

Byrne was in charge of the local U10 Community Games team that Whelan played for, and he witnessed the talented young player do something in a game that distinguished him from all others on the pitch that day.

“We won a free on the 21 yard line at the flag and at U10, he stood up to the ball on his right hand side and stood up to it on his left hand-side.

“At U10 he was thinking of which side would give him the best chance of striking the ball over the bar. He had the capability at that stage to strike a ball from the 21 yard line over the bar, possibly on both sides.

“Very few people would have that skill level at that stage.”

Newfound strength

Like many GAA players who make the transition into the senior ranks, they discover the importance of good physical conditioning in order to survive in the modern game.

Whelan is no exception to this, and his body shape has changed dramatically since making his senior inter-county debut. The player profiles from this year’s All-Ireland semi-final match programme have clocked his current weight at 13st 8lbs.

Conor Whelan celebrates Conor Whelan celebrating after Galway's victory in the All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Cunningham advised Whelan to concentrate on this aspect of his preparation after first bringing him on board, and after two years of Whelan adjusting to his new frame, Cunningham is impressed with the final product.

“It was a huge advantage to him to build up his conditioning and that’s something we would have pointed out to him early days that he would have to work on that.

“It’s just the way the game has gone.

“In terms of conditioning, he would have worked away over the winter months and his physical condition at his age is really up there with the best.

“His touch is one thing but you’ve got to be able to ride the tackles and get away from players and hold off a player. Where he’s playing, he’s got to be able to hold off players because he’s going to need what he has at the weekend against Noel Connors who is set well.”

Whelan’s ability to blend his natural pace with his robust physique has been evident throughout 2017, including this encounter with Tipperary’s James Barry in the League final.

Whelan gathers possession and burrows his way past the Tipperary full-back, forcing Barry to commit the foul and concede a free.

A similar example of this also occurred during the first half of the All-Ireland semi-final.

A well aimed assist from Conor Cooney sets Whelan up to put him in a scorable position, but Whelan completes the move by dropping his shoulder to fool his marker, before jinking the other direction to clip the ball over the bar.

A friend watching over

Whelan is preparing for his second All-Ireland final this weekend, and for a second time, he will bring the memory of his cousin Niall Donohue with him. He has often been seen on matchdays with Niall’s name written on his arm.

General view of Conor Whelan arm's A picture of Conor Whelan during the 2015 All-Ireland final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Niall lined out in Galway’s half-back line in the 2012 All-Ireland decider, when they were beaten by Kilkenny after a replay.

Like his cousin, he earned an All-Star nomination at the end of that year. And just like Whelan has done in the Kinvara grounds, Niall regularly frequented his local pitch in Kilbeacanty to hone in on his skills.

Justin Fahy remembers Niall as a shy and unassuming person, who played with distinction when he took to the field for club and county, and he sees a lot of Niall’s characteristics permeating through Conor today.

Galway KK Galway and Kinvara goalkeeper Colm Callanan shares a poignant moment with Conor Whelan after suffering defeat in the 2015 All-Ireland final. Source: Kilkenny Hurling Bits & Bobs

Kinvara and Kilbeacanaty are situated less than 20km away from each other in the South of Galway, but they are forever united through Whelan, and the cousin whose memory he carries on his skin.

The week leading up to an All-Ireland final is abuzz with fans scrambling for match tickets, sending texts about nervous expectations, pulling county jerseys out of hot presses, and meeting up with friends in familiar haunts.

It’s about the schools that players once attended, and the teachers who are still rooting for their former pupils. It’s the bunting in local towns and the streamers that connect houses on opposite sides of the street.

It’s getting up earlier in the morning to finish off a few jobs before converging on Croke Park. It’s planes, trains and automobiles to get back to Ireland from far flung places, and getting a mention on the Sunday Game before the match starts if that can’t be done.

It’s the famines that feel like they’ll never end, and the friends who you wish could be there, experiencing it all with you.

For the people of Kilbeacanty, this week will evoke a range of emotions in them.

“Obviously, he’s always in the back of your head,” explains Fahy. “Some say time heals, but I don’t think it ever heals because different people deal with it in different ways. It’s definitely mixed emotions but you have to look forward to it.

“You have to have the will for them (Galway) to do it, because they’re such a great bunch of lads and he has great friends on the team.

“He’s not there but you can be sure he’s there with the angels looking down on them. Obviously it’s going to be a load of emotions leading up to it and that’s the way it will be but I think if we hadn’t sport, it would be a lot harder.

I heard that leading up to the 2012 All-Ireland final, Nialli was outclassing everyone at training in terms physicality and in terms of fitness. He was beating everyone and a few weeks back, I read an article that Conor Whelan is doing the same so they just have such similar traits that it’s frightening.

“The sad thing is that the two of them can’t be lining out together the next day, and what a feat that would have been.

“One of them is the talisman in the back-line and one of them is the talisman in the forward line, it’s just a pity and the nature of it.”

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