Dublin: 3°C Sunday 28 November 2021
Advertisement

'It wasn't about redemption. It was about Robert Hennelly – the journey'

Some of the people who know him best, on Mayo’s last line of defence.

“There is a feeling that this probably is the last chance saloon” 

KEVIN MCSTAY LEFT the viewers at home in no doubt about the pressure on the kick as Robbie Hennelly placed the ball on the damp Croke Park turf.

The latest instalment of the Dublin v Mayo story had been typically chaotic. Just 40 seconds earlier the Mayo goalkeeper has sliced an effort badly wide as referee Conor Lane tried to digest a series of distractions.

A retake was ordered, with Hennelly made to wait as a chorus of whistles and boos echoed around the cavernous, half-full arena. Then, five steps back, two to the left – white flag, all square.

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more>

Mayo would win the game by three points but it will be Hennelly’s equalising score, splitting the posts in the eighth minute of added time, that lives in the memory. It was impossible not to think back over the Breaffy man’s colourful history in that stadium. Against that team.

Five years previously, that same Canal End goal had provided the setting for a moment that had threatened to overshadow an excellent career in the green and red.

More of that later.

*****

Declan Jennings remembers watching a confident young Robbie Hennelly playing full-back for a Breaffy U12s team. He would eventually call Hennelly a teammate, before the relationship changed to one of player and coach when Jennings began training the club’s Dublin-based players following his own retirement. 

“When he was a young fella in Breaffy, he was tall but he was skinny,” Jennings says. “But he was always an accomplished goalkeeper coming through the ranks. He’s a clever fella and he can read things. He’d always be on to the defenders about covering the space, to watch that fella, he’s right-footed or whatever.”

This talented young goalkeeper from Breaffy quickly caught the eye of coaches wearing Mayo colours. Hennelly starred for the Mayo team that lost the 2008 All-Ireland minor final and was playing senior championship football by 2011, making his debut at the age of 21. Getting a taste of the big stage fuelled an already impressive desire to improve himself.

robert-hennelly Hennelly playing for Mayo in 2011. Source: James Crombie

At this point Hennelly was still lining our for DCU, where Dr Niall Moyna found himself spoilt for choice between the sticks. With Stephen Cluxton not long gone from the college, Hennelly’s main competition for the shirt came from Donegal’s Michael Boyle.

“He was always a good goalkeeper, there was no ands, ifs or buts about that,” says Moyna. “Robbie was very receptive, wanted to learn and wanted to be a better goalkeeper. He’d take any criticism and go and do the training.

“I remember one year we had a huge issue with kick-outs. Mick Bohan took them up to the gym in DCU one January morning and said ‘Look, we’ve got to do something with our kick-outs here, we’ll work on a strategy.’ You’d want to leave your ego outside the door when Mick has a chat with you, but Robbie and Michael were absolutely fantastic, because I can tell you, Mick gave them a bit of criticism that day. But they bought into it straight away.

“And to be fair, the two boys took it on board and our game was transformed because of the improvement in their kick-outs.”

Hennelly’s kick-outs soon became a stand-out quality of his game. His accuracy and power from the placed ball didn’t go unnoticed, and when Moyna found himself short of a free-taker, Hennelly was encouraged to step up

“He fancies himself I think as this type of modern goalie, like what’s happening with (Rory) Beggan and (Niall) Morgan. Robbie would like that role himself if he could get away with it,” says Jennings.

“He’s meticulous. I’d see him out with a bag of footballs, he might have 20 out around the 45 at different angles, kicking them over the bar practicing.

He doesn’t like to concede kick-outs, and he certainly doesn’t like to concede goals. He’s very competitive in that. We might have been doing stuff in training, and the forwards would be taking shots and he’d be daring them to score. He’s very proud of keeping clean sheets.”

Over in DCU, as Moyna got to know Hennelly a little better, he began to notice traits he had once seen in a previous student.

“He wouldn’t be very dissimilar to Stephen Cluxton,” Moyna explains.

“When I think about him and Stephen, I think about the full package. I’m thinking about the exterior and the human being, and I’m thinking that that is such a solid, solid person, who has high demands on themselves and on others, and they seek to be the best they can be. 

“Both quiet, unassuming, and extremely professional in everything that they do. Both leaders, but leaders in very different ways. Stephen is not the boisterous type – now and again maybe when it’s needed – but standards. Both of them have very high standards.

“And it’s one thing demanding a high standard, anyone can talk the talk, but both of them walk the walk through their actions, the hours of practice and dedication. Other players saw that. Talent will only get you so far, and those two guys have all the attributes then that brings you from talent to that extra level that makes you different to everyone else.” 

Hennelly won two Sigerson Cups during his time in DCU, but was injured on both occasions. For the college’s 2012 success, he had been first-choice goalkeeper all season until chipping a bone in his elbow. Boyle started the decider against NUI Maynooth, but with DCU in full control Moyna took the unusual step of replacing his goalkeeper midway through the second half.

I remember saying to myself that if I get the opportunity, that guy is going to win a Sigerson medal on the field. That’s a testament to the esteem I held him in. He was just the consummate team player.”

Hennelly’s path to the Mayo first team was less smooth, with the equally impressive David Clarke favoured by coaches for much of his early career and Kenneth O’Malley providing competition on the bench. Clarke started the 2012 National League as first choice and Hennelly walked away from the county panel that summer citing work commitments in Dublin, a decision he would later admit he regretted hugely.

Mayo seemed to be managing just fine without him. Clarke captained Mayo to the 2012 All-Ireland final, where James Horan’s side lost to an inspired Donegal.

“I’ll never forget I was sitting up in the Upper Hogan looking down on the Donegal match thinking ‘when am I going to be back playing with Mayo?” Hennelly later told The42. “I said then I was going to put in the effort and move home.”

The following season Clarke ripped his hamstring off the bone and O’Malley suffered ankle ligament damage. Horan picked up the phone and Hennelly was reintegrated back into the squad shortly before the 2013 Connacht final against London.

He remained between the posts for the quarter-final win over Donegal, sweet revenge for the previous year’s final, while the semi-final defeat of Tyrone saw Hennelly keep a clean sheet and chip in with a point from a long-range free.  

It sent Mayo through to a 22 September date with Dublin, the two teams meeting in an All-Ireland final for the first time since 1921.

Hennelly made three superb saves in the brilliant Croke Park sunshine but a costly first-half error allowed Bernard Brogan pounce for an early goal. Dublin went on to win their second All-Ireland title in three years, beating the Connacht side by a point.

ciaran-kilkenny-has-a-shot-saved-by-robert-hennelly Hennelly saves a shot from Dublin's Ciaran Kilkenny during the 2013 All-Ireland final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Still, Hennelly held on to the shirt for the 2014 championship, Mayo’s season ending at the hands of Kerry in the semi-finals. Then in 2015 the picture changed again as joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly restored Clarke. Having walked away once before, this time Hennelly was determined to stick it out and win the shirt back.

“They were probably two of the best goalies in the country, pushing each other,” says Jennings. “Two very competitive guys, but they looked after each other as well behind the scenes when they would have had bad days or whatever, they would pick each other up.

And Robbie is a positive fella around the place. He’s infectious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in really bad form. He always comes in with a smile on his face. You could be having a bad day and he’d come over and spend a few minutes with you and just get you bouncing again. He’s really good with people.”

That positive attitude endeared Hennelly to his teammates, the Breaffy man continuing to play a valuable role within the squad regardless of whether he was in the starting team or not.

“Robbie got it at times, David had it at times,” explains Andy Moran, a man who recently described Hennelly as “the best teammate I’ve ever had.”

“Robbie maybe had three or four years where he was sitting (on the bench). But he waited patiently. They became really good friends but really big rivals at the same time. They pushed each other, they had arguments, they fell out, (but) if you were out on a night out, they’d have been the two boys that’d be together. They were really close. 

“Robbie was like a sponge around David, just learning. Clarkey was the same with Robbie.”

robert-hennelly-and-david-clarke Hennelly with David Clarke in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The biggest test of Hennelly’s resilience would come in 2016. He started that season on the bench but was promoted to the starting team for the All-Ireland final replay against Dublin, a bold call as the in-form Clarke dropped out.

The idea was that Hennelly’s kick-outs could give Mayo a valuable edge in the replay. Having been brought in from the cold – again – the pressure was on to deliver.

*****

‘Back out as far as Paul Flynn, it’s going to drop into Hennelly’s hands… He’s nervous, he’s lost it!’

There was 40 minutes on the clock when Dublin’s Paul Flynn floated a hopeful ball in towards the square. Hennelly came out to gather the dropping ball but spilled it, panicked, and threw himself at Paddy Andrews in a desperate attempt to recover from the mistake.

At the time the scores were level. Hennelly was black-carded, Diarmuid Connolly buried the subsequent penalty, and Dublin went on the win the game by a point.

Flash Sale
50% OFF

Use promo code: FLASH50 at checkout to access exclusive analysis, insight and debate for only €21.

Become a Member

In some quarters, the backlash against Hennelly was brutal. Two days after the game, he took to Instagram. “I don’t know where I’ll be in a year’s time, but I do know that I’m not going to give up,” Hennelly wrote. “I love Mayo and this team too much to do that.”

robert-hennelly-consoled-by-andy-moran-and-kevin-mcloughlin-after-the-game Hennelly is consoled by Andy Moran and Kevin McLoughlin after the 2016 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Clarke ended up winning an All Star that season, and would add another to his collection the following year as Hennelly resumed his position on the bench.

Yet he had always been good at dealing with setbacks. Moyna can recall one particular DCU game where his young goalkeeper produced one of the most bizarre own goals he’s ever seen, sending an intended pass into the roof of his own net.

I’ll never forget it. I remember going to him at half-time, ‘Robbie, how in under God’s name of Jaysus do you kick a ball into the top of the net in your own goal? It was unreal! But he had a big smile on his face! That’s the height of the man really. That year he ended up winning the Sigerson.

“I think he was treated unfairly (after 2016). Most players, with what he had to endure, it would have taken such a psychological toll – there’s not a chance they would have continued.”

“Rob is a bit of character, he drives a lot of the craic around the place,” explains former Mayo midfielder Seamie O’Shea.

“It hurts all of us when you see Rob is struggling or see him down. He’s a huge character within the squad. Goalkeeper is a tough spot. We all make mistakes out the field that have far less implications for the team, and if a goalkeeper does it, it’s the end of the world.”

Clarke remained Mayo’s number one for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Hennelly was back between the sticks for Mayo’s 2019 National League final win, before an injury to Clarke opening the door for him again in time for that summer’s championship semi-final defeat to Dublin. Clarke was back between the sticks for his final season last year, his retirement in January allowing Hennelly finally step up as the recognised, unchallenged first-choice keeper.  

robert-hennelly-lifts-the-trophy Hennelly celebrates Mayo's National League title in 2019. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

And he’s there on merit. Hennelly has always been a superb shot-stopper, but over the years he’s worked hard on becoming a more rounded goalkeeper.

“He’s been steady all year,” says O’Shea. “I know he got a lot of the headlines the last day because he kicked the 45, and a number of frees as well, but he was outstanding from kickouts generally. The same in the Galway game – I think he lost one or two kickouts in the whole game. He’s picking out fellas really well.”

“He would have analysed those bits and pieces of what his strengths and what his weaknesses were, and he seems to be even more confident this year” says Jennings.

“Between his ears, that main muscle, which people forget about, he’s much stronger in that (now). That showed the last day with that last kick. To have the courage to come out and do that with everyone looking at you and the history of his roles in Croke Park…

“He’s taken a lot of batterings over the years with Mayo and I think the sign of a person is how you respond to adversity,” adds Moyna, “and I think where Robbie is today – going into yet another All-Ireland final with all the adversity he has faced, that in itself is a testament to his character and the type of person he really is.”

Responding to adversity has proven to be a very Mayo trait. Time and again, the men from the west have picked themselves up from devastating defeat and negotiated the hard road back to the biggest day on the GAA calendar. 

This time, more than ever, there is a feeling it really might just be their year.

“I wouldn’t be able to put words on it,” says Jennings, the emotion beginning to show in his voice.

“Robbie is not defined by that performance in 2016. He has grown and taken on that role to be better. We’ve been on that journey with him, the good days and the bad. We would be extremely proud of him in Breaffy.”

“I would rate Robert as one of the top three to five goalkeepers of the last quarter of a century,” says Moyna. “He has to be. And I knew when he got the second chance against Dublin that he was going to score it.

“For me, it wasn’t about redemption. It was about Robert Hennelly the journey, the man that he is. When the chips were down and Mayo needed someone to stand up, who is the guy that came again? Robert Hennelly. If he missed it, he was the guy that was going to be vilified again, but he was the guy who put his head above the parapet.

“You have to admire that.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more>

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

Read next:

COMMENTS (2)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel