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Sean Kelly the right man at the right time to captain Galway

Sean Kelly will captain Galway against Roscommon in the Connacht final in Pearse Stadium today.

Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

FOR THE PAST fortnight, the Galway football faithful has been palpably excited about a Connacht final in their own backyard. Four years is nowhere near a famine for this mercurial county. Their previous drought was twice that.

Nevertheless, throughout that spell, they could and did take solace in the fact they weren’t even close. Flick through the exhaustive review of that lull and you will find no shortage of vague rationalisations, from poor structures to rigid philosophies.

After 2008, they appeared in one of the next six provincial deciders. Players and coaches were sucked in and spat out. At times it was a mess.

That is no longer the case. The past and current managers are All Ireland winning legends with a formulated and well-organised setup. This current crop of players has appeared in the last five Connacht finals, but they only won one.

To a certain degree, they are performing. Lose Sunday and the collective will have to come to terms with the fact that now they have no more excuses. Are they good enough? Time to find out.

sean-kelly-after-the-match Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

Much of their prospect rests on the wide shoulders of Sean Kelly and the area he is set to command.  The Moycullen native has seamlessly transitioned from a rangy middle-third workhouse to minder of the house.

He scored in five of seven championship games during their run to the final four in 2018. This season he has kept Jason Doherty and Shane Moran scoreless as a full-back. 

The barstool analysis of Padraic Joyce’s Galway is that they are first-rate up front, frail at the back. Kelly is charged with resolving that. Joyce appointed the 24-year-old team captain earlier this season. When he went off injured in last year’s Connacht final, Galway went to pieces. He is their leader. 

Did he always seem captain material?

“No,” admits Gareth Bradshaw. He gave 14 years of service to Galway and hails from the same club as Kelly.

“That is being honest. He does his talking on the pitch. If you give Sean Kelly a jersey you know exactly what you are going to get. Actions rather than words, but that is what they need now. I think he is a brilliant captain for Galway.

“Sean was always going to be a full-back. I genuinely do think so. Even looking back at the league final, it bypassed him when he was in midfield. He was neither attacking nor defending really.

“Galway does need him back there and he is suited to it. He is also a springboard for attacks as well as nullifying the danger. That is his position. Fingers crossed he goes well and brings a Connacht cup back to Moycullen.”

sean-kelly-and-paddy-andrews Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

When Kevin Walsh made his Galway debut in 1987, the late Padraig ‘Dandy’ Kelly was a leading light on the team. 30 years later, Walsh was manager and extended an invite to Kelly’s son to join the senior squad. 

Padraig was one of Galway’s long-serving players of the 1980s, and he sadly passed away in November 2001. He was a popular teacher and devoted clubman, serving as a player and secretary. 

“Dandy was a legend,” recalls Henry Lydon. He has played and coached in Moycullen for years. His brother, Mark, was a dual player for Galway.

“He used to bring me up and down to the field. I went to UCD growing up and he would’ve been a big influence on me. He was harping on constantly, make sure you are in with those boys and learning. You could always count on him to get a crucial score or influence a ref, truth be told.

“Sean runs just like him. Arms throwing out, unorthodox stride. If you saw a fella running like it you’d think, ‘I can manage this fella no problem. He mustn’t have much football.’ Next thing he is tearing past you!”

On Wednesday evening Lydon was moving cattle when one of his three sons came racing towards him. ‘Sean Kelly passed by. He waved and stopped to say hello!’ He suddenly realised how influential inter-county players are for the local juveniles, and how well suited Kelly is to his role as a Games Development Officer, conducting coaching sessions in local schools and clubs.

The three Kelly brothers and Moycullen are a tribe. It is where they were reared and raised. When the local Creche was stuck for help post-Covid, they turned to Sean. He had attended there as a child and knew of its importance. Kelly and his brother, Eoghan, went to work. Always answering the call.

They played anything and everything. Sean was a talented underage soccer player for Salthill. All three were cross-country runners in school and superb basketball players. Paul played underage for Ireland.

paul-kelly-celebrates-scoring-their-first-goal Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Eoghan captained Moycullen to the 2016 National Cup final and subsequently went to Connecticut on a basketball scholarship. He later accepted a scholarship offer from a D3 school in Chicago.

He returned in 2020 and immediately went to work. At first, he joined the club’s junior football team. An unquestionably elite athlete but someone who missed out on three years of football development.

Alongside his brothers and their friend, Galway vice-captain Matthew Tierney, he trained religiously, breaking into the senior club team that year.

When Moycullen won their first-ever county final in 2020, Eoghan came on as a substitute. Now he is a mainstay. Last March, all three brothers started for NUIG in their Sigerson Cup final triumph. Eoghan was tasked with quelling David Clifford. He excelled. In recent weeks he has been invited into the Galway squad alongside his two brothers.

Sean is admired within the group for his tendency to quietly and diligently drive on. His captaincy is work-driven and example-led.

The win over Mayo was a poignant game for the brothers as they lined out a day after their grandmother died. Mary Bridget Kelly was a staunch Moycullen and Galway supporter for decades. Padraig was her only son.

“They are a credit to their father,” says Seamus Friel. He was a goalkeeper on that county championship-winning team, coming out of retirement so he could play with all three of his Kelly cousins.

“All three of them. They had a natural ability with sport in general and there is no doubt where they get it from. 

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“But with that natural ability, they take it so seriously. They train hard and eat well. They are so tight and their mother takes good care of them. The three lads are home for dinner at six o’clock. No questions. The best fed men in the country.

“The last two years, Sean has put on big muscle. I wonder did he bulk up too quickly. It might have contributed to some of those injuries he had. Mayo last year. He got injured against Kerry in a league match a few years ago. Just too much stress on his body when he was still developing but he is where he wants to be now.”

gearoid-breadseach-celebrates Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For a long time, Gareth Bradshaw was the sole representative from the west Galway club on the county panel. Defender David Wynne later entered the fray. In recent years a trickle became a flood. As well as the Kellys, Owen Gallagher, Dessie Connelly and James McLaughlin are also involved. Peter Cooke was a strong performer until taking a break this year.

“Bradshaw was a stalwart. He was our club representative,” explains Lydon.

“Now you check every county team at various levels, there are Moycullen players dotted in it. We’ve had more success. Michael Donnellan came in as coach. The 2020 win was massive.

“Part of that is because there are fewer guys playing duel as well. In my time there were several playing both. You might have low numbers training because it was a hurling or football week. Now there are none. When we won the Intermediate hurling in 2011, in my eyes what helped us win was we were knocked out of the football early.

 “We had Paul Clancy with Galway obviously who won two All-Irelands, then Gareth. A small sprinkling underage. Mark was there a few years. Then it dropped off until now when it has boomed.”

In 2020, Bradshaw and David Wynne drew on the same gameplan that Kevin Walsh poured into Galway, and drilled it into the club. It proved a potent recipe and they thrived. That put a glut of the side in the shop window. Of the 26 named for Sunday, four hail from Moycullen. 

“I’d be lying if I said it was all down to huge structural improvements,” says Bradshaw.

“It is a talented crop. They are all great young lads and they are pushing us on but the next few years will really tell where we are. Corofin is the benchmark and we are all aspiring to get to that level.” 

The key is maximising every morsel of their god-given talent. Bradshaw went to St Mary’s secondary school. There he was exposed to the coaching of future Galway boss Liam Sammon. That is the lesson he hopes to instil in the club now. A lesson the county can take heed of. 

“It is either in you or it’s not. I’ve seen many a good club player in Moycullen who could have played at a higher level and they didn’t capitalise on their potential. You really have to down tools and be totally selfish and selfless. Just get on with it.

“The same with Galway. Sunday is a big game for them. I think they will really want to go and put down a marker after Roscommon turned them over in Pearse Stadium in the last two finals. The expectation is there now. The Galway public expects them to go and win it after taking out Mayo.

“That expectation is probably new to the younger lads that Padraic gave game time to this year. But that is what has to happen. No more talk. Go and get the job done.” 

The Kelly way. 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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