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'I was told, 'You'll be going in now'. I nearly turned pale, I was thinking, 'Oh no Brendan, will you get up'

Eoin Kelly on his hurling year in 2000 that saw him play for three Tipperary teams and win an All-Ireland for a Kilkenny side.

2000 week

This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

Here, Fintan O’Toole hears the story of how hurling great Eoin Kelly lined out for three Tipperary teams in championship in 2000, was a sub goalkeeper and forward for Nicky English’s senior side, and celebrated an All-Ireland win with future Kilkenny legends.

**************

IN THE FIRST half of the 2000 All-Ireland senior quarter-final, Brendan Cummins sustained a blow to the head during a goalmouth scramble.

The Tipperary goalkeeper sensed trouble straight away.

“I could feel the warm sensation of blood dripping down my face from a head wound,” outlined Cummins later in his autobiography, ‘Standing My Ground’.

Team doctor Gerry O’Sullivan rushed in to his aid in Croke Park, team manager Nicky English not far behind to assess the situation.

Would a change be necessary, the goalkeeping understudy required to face down a Galway attack powered by Eugene Cloonan, Ollie Canning and Joe Rabbitte?

The TV cameras focused on the young reserve netminder sitting in the Cusack Stand, the GAA headquarters in the midst of major refurbishment which rendered the Hogan Stand out of bounds.

20 years on and Eoin Kelly has a clear recollection of the unease he felt at the prospect of standing between the posts for his first taste of senior championship action

“I was told, ‘You’ll be going in now’. I turned pale. I was thinking, ‘Oh no Brendan, will you get up’. He got up and played on.”

Kelly was double-jobbing that afternoon. It was a risk taken by management to select him as the back-up goalkeeper, a position he had played underage, and also have an extra attacking option off the bench.

A precocious talent, his recruitment to the senior ranks in the same summer where he sat his Leaving Cert and spearheaded the Tipperary minor effort, illustrated the high regard in which he was held.

Cummins was bandaged up and got through to half-time where English and O’Sullivan conferred in the dressing-room.

“Gerry, is he right?”

“Yeah I’m just giving him an injection.”

“Don’t mind that, stitch him.”

The emergency remedial action saw Cummins continue for the second half. Midway through that period Kelly got another call from the sideline.

“Then in the second half, about 15, 20 minutes to go, Nicky turned around and said, ‘Eoin, get ready there’.

“The next thing the kitman, Hotpoint at the time, came to me with a number 16 outfield jersey. I just slipped that on. It was pre-planned I’d say that you might see game time but to give rid of any nerves or anything, I wasn’t told.

“Probably a good way to be introduced to the championship, just thrown into the heat of battle without having to think about it. I came on. Got a pass off Eugene O’Neill at one stage and scored a point.”

Galway won out 1-14 to 0-15, savouring their first major championship win since 1993. The result marked the end of the road that season for Tipperary.

But for Kelly the day represented something different. It was his first appearance and first point in Tipperary senior colours.

That game was the start of it.

**************

The year 2000 began for Kelly with unfinished business. The U21 championship locally in Tipperary had dragged on, the legacy of a wretched winter. The last final of the millennium had been pencilled in for a December date yet it spilled over to February when it was eventually played. Kelly shot 2-5 for Mullinahone but they lost out to Cappawhite by a point.

It would be a year dominated by involvement with Tipperary sides of different gradings yet the spring was characterised by a role on Noreside.

Kelly had moved during secondary school from Scoil Ruain in Killenaule to St Kieran’s College in Kilkenny. He was naturally immersed in hurling there. They had lost out in the Croke Cup final in 1999 but reversed that result against St Flannan’s of Ennis in 2000.

Kelly pointed the way with 0-7 that day in Nenagh, bettering his semi-final tally by one. The St Kieran’s team was loaded with talent, future Kilkenny hurling royalty amongst Kelly’s team-mates.

“How many All-Ireland medals were won after? Tommy (Walsh) corner-back that day, Brian Hogan six, Jackie Tyrrell at seven, it just tells you the strength of the backs. Individual people went on to have unbelievable careers with Kilkenny.

“Brian Carroll corner-forward there as well, he’d a great career with Offaly. It was an amazing mixture of Offaly, Tipperary and Kilkenny lads, Joe Delaney from Laois was a sub.

“It’s 20 years ago now, most of our hurling careers are over. When you look at that team, top class players came off it.”

St Kieran’s 2000 Croke Cup winning team

1. D Brennan
2. D Connery
3. J Moran
4. T Walsh
5. B Hogan
6. K Coogan
7. J Tyrrell
8. T Murphy (0-1)
9. S Hennessy
10. S O’Neill (0-1)
11. E Kelly (0-7, 0-4 frees)
12. M Walsh
13. B Carroll
14. P O’Neill
15. L Heffernan (1-1)

Sub used: N Sweeney for Walsh

St Kieran's Source: Irish News Archive

His time in St Kieran’s helped shape Kelly as a hurler.

“There was a winning mentality in Kieran’s. We played 40 or 50 games between challenge matches, championship games, league like. I think we only lost one, the All-Ireland to St Flannan’s in 1999. We were winning by four or five points and they hit us with two goals with about ten minutes to go.

“The hurling, it was a serious level, the same as county minor really. Mentality wise, hurling wise, skill wise, the pace of the hurling was just quicker, it definitely did help. It was a great learning curve. They were great times, to win the All-Ireland final in 2000, it brings fond memories.”

It is an interesting dynamic to reflect on.

At the close of that decade they were on opposing sides in those thunderous All-Ireland final contests that gripped the national sporting imagination.

Jackie Tyrrell described Kelly as ‘a genius’ in hurling matters in his book ‘The Warrior’s Code’ but stopping him from unleashing that attacking magic was a core objective of the Kilkenny rearguard.

tommy-walsh-with-eoin-kelly Tommy Walsh and Eoin Kelly during the 2010 All-Ireland hurling final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

jackie-tyrrell-with-eoin-kelly Jackie Tyrrell and Eoin Kelly during the 2010 All-Ireland hurling final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I remember being at Tommy Walsh’s wedding and we were sitting down at the table,” recalls Kelly.

“Noel Hickey were there and I said to him, ‘Noel, you’re the odd one out’.

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“He said, ‘What you mean like?’

“I said, ‘You’re the non-Kieran’s lad here’. He’d gone to Callan CBS.

“Look we would always have had a good relationship with the Kilkenny panel. There was never any animosity there. There was good, honest, hard, competitive hurling on the pitch. It was savage like.

“But once the game was over, there’s unbelievable respect there between the players. Any of the (All-Star) trips we were on with them, it was an enjoyable time. Tipperary and Kilkenny, it’s definitely a healthy rivalry.”

**************

With the school hurling assignments completed, the Tipperary duties in 2000 started to stack up for Kelly. It was his fourth season playing minor and the second of what would ultimately be five lining out for the U21 side.

A hectic schedule was nothing new. Consider this.

On Tuesday 31 August 1999 he came off the bench and hit 0-3 in Ennis as Tipperary triumphed in a wild and tempestuous Munster U21 final against Clare before an audience of over 17,000.

The following Saturday they were on the national trail but lost out in a semi-final against Galway, Kelly netting in defeat. Eight days later he was the minor sharpshooter on final day but his 0-6 haul could not prevent them succumbing to another defeat against a Galway outfit.

2000 was no different.

“We played Limerick on a Wednesday night in a Munster minor semi-final. Then on the Saturday night I remember we had an U21 club game and I hurt knee ligaments in that. Then we played against Limerick the following Wednesday night in the replay.

“This was all a couple of weeks before the Leaving Cert. That’ll tell you how busy it was. There was no rules or regulations, even though you were 18 you were playing U21 or playing senior. You were available for selection for all teams.”

The hope was to bow out of the minor ranks on a high note. But after Kelly amassed 2-11 in a stunning display in the drawn match in Bruff and fired 0-10 in the replay in Thurles, Tipperary were knocked out.

His cousin Niall Moran was part of the jubilant Limerick team, a month after he had lost out with St Flannan’s. The divided family loyalties continued for years between the Kelly and Moran households in hurling showdowns.

“The big thing then was getting the opportunity to play the Munster final before the big games, it was an unbelievable feeling to do that.

“There was a big family interest in those games. You didn’t think much about it, you were just going out playing. We won the All-Ireland colleges and then Limerick won the Munster semi-final replay.

“It was interesting to have the family interest there and I suppose that went on for years then with Limerick and Tipp because Niall became a regular on the Limerick team, Ollie was on it already, myself and Paul were playing with Tipp so. That really kicked off the family clashes, that 2000 year.”

**************

The U21 campaign ended early for Tipperary, Eoin featured alongside older brother Paul in a loss in their opener against Waterford.

But then as the hurling commitments were starting to dwindle, word filtered through from the biggest stage of all.

“I think it was after one of my last exams, I was called into Tipperary training around that time. Nicky rang me, he’s an icon in the county. You were in on the training panel then. I remember being involved in the dugout for the Munster final against Cork, got a flavour the whole setup.”

If there were nerves at operating in such exalted company for a youngster, they were aided by the familiar faces in the dressing-room.

“It was a surprise really. What made it a bit easier for me was my brother Paul was on the panel already. I was able to tag along with him. John Leahy was on the panel and Brian O’Meara so there was four of us from Mullinahone.

“So it wasn’t really as daunting. You hear some guys walking in on their own. Going in to train in Semple Stadium was something that was different. Now we had trained there before with the U21s and the minors, but you’d only get in there before an All-Ireland final or a Munster final. To be in there full training sessions, 15-a-side games, it was unbelievable. It was a big learning curve but you were able to sort of enjoy it as well.”

mullinahone-3052001 Eoin Kelly (back right) part of the Mullinahone group in the Tipperary senior squad. Source: INPHO

Kelly had dual responsibilities. Standing in goal in training one night, operating in the forward line another. Life between the posts was not alien to him.

At 15 he had played there for the Tipperary minor side against Waterford and Limerick, drawing acclaim for his shot-stopping in those games. That summer of 1997 would conclude with cameos in attack in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Croke Park.

It’s not been an unusual occurrence in Tipperary circles. Darragh Egan, a current member of the county senior management with him, previously moved between the positions. Dan McCormack was in goal in an All-Ireland minor semi-final against Kilkenny back in 2009.

“I had a taste of it with the Tipperary minors,” says Kelly.

“A lot of goalkeepers do have experience of playing outfield. You see Eoin Murphy in Kilkenny, he plays outfield for his own club in the forwards.

“When you were younger, you would have played up the older age groups in goal. Brendan Maher I think I remember him playing in goal for his club Borris-Ileigh when he would have been 15 I’d say. Say in the olden days when the rules were different, if you’d a good young hurler, you’d think, ‘Right we’ll play him in goal’. It’s not something in the GAA, in the hurling world that’s out on its’ own.

“I did enjoy it. I’d have no problem going back into goal now. The way the goalkeepers play now that you have the scope to come out the pitch, take a handpass off a corner-back, the odd one has a pot for a score. You would have liked to be, let’s call it the seventh defender, the quarterback.

“Years ago it was just puck it as long as you can, the goalkeeper was maybe stuck to the line, nowadays he has to be off his line. I’d like to play as the modern ‘keeper now, it’s a bit more exciting, he’s on the ball a bit more, seeing more of the action.”

The senior introduction for that year proved short-lived with Tipperary exiting at the hands of Galway.

Whatever regrets existed over the senior outcome did not linger for long. A punishing pre-season awaited in November as a new campaign was mapped out and it would transpire to yield a rich hurling harvest.

“When you talk about 2000 now you probably remember the ones you could have won say with the squad of players you were with. I would have loved to have won a minor All-Ireland or U21 All-Ireland with the squad you would have grown up with.

“But then we won the league, Munster and All-Ireland senior championship in 2001. I was 19. When you’re that young you don’t really understand or take it all in. You appreciate it more when you get older.”

**************

eoin-kelly-celebrates-after-the-match Eoin Kelly celebrating Tipperary's 2010 victory Source: Cathal Noonan

Life as a mainstay in the Tipperary attack followed, his displays intertwined with the fortunes of the team. Liam MacCarthy Cup glory arrived again in 2010 with the added bonus of captaincy. There were five Munster medals, a pair of National League accolades and six All-Stars recognising individual brilliance as a prolific score-taker.

Besides Tipperary were in safe hands further back the pitch.

“Brendan Cummins had that well sewn up, I think anyone would have known to leave him alone there,” laughs Kelly.

“I’m trying to think did I ever play a game in goal again since. I think I might have played one night down in Wexford against Wexford in a challenge game around Babs time, 2006 or 2007, a Thursday or Friday night.

“That’d happen the odd night. We’d have no keeper, the first one Brendan wasn’t available and the second one wasn’t around. If you were ever asked to stand in, there was no problem.”

Forward life was the focus after 2000.

He became number one in his own way.

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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