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Dublin: 5°C Sunday 17 January 2021
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The All-Ireland hurling winner with three sons chasing football glory in Tipperary colours

John Kennedy lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1989 and 1991. His sons Colman, Jack and Conal are part of the Tipperary squad that face Mayo on Sunday.

Colman, Conal and Jack Kennedy after Clonmel Commercials won the 2019 Tipperary senior final.
Colman, Conal and Jack Kennedy after Clonmel Commercials won the 2019 Tipperary senior final.
Image: Tom O’Hanlon/INPHO

IT WAS THE strangest Munster final morning in Clonmel.

John Kennedy has a good handle on these occasions. He picked up four senior hurling medals during his playing days as Tipperary emerged from the provincial wilderness in the late 80s. A couple of All-Irelands provided the finishing touches, his career filled with a decent chunk of happy memories from outings as a defensive anchor.

But last Sunday week was a different one to process. Two sons went out the door of the family home that morning, another one was left behind.

Colman and Conal made their own way to Cork for a football showdown rather than boarding a team bus. Jack was forced to stay put, ruled out due to a knock to his leg sustained in the second half of the semi-final win over Limerick.

2020 matchday guidelines impose limits that would scarcely have been imagined a year ago. If you’re unable to tog out due to injury, the doors will be shut if you try to enter the stadiums. Parents so accustomed to trekking around the country to watch their children play, must rely on the television footage beamed into their homes.

And so it was on the day Tipperary football carved out a slice of history with that momentous Munster title, the Kennedy family were celebrating in a diverse range of locations.

Colman and Conal soaking it in on the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch. Jack with parents John and Tina back home in Clonmel. The eldest of the children, Caroline, supporting from her base in London.

conal-kennedy-celebrates-after-the-game Conal Kennedy celebrates after Tipperary's Munster final success. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s the first time the other two left the house for a match and Jack was still at home,” recalls John.

“That’s the first time that happened ever. I think they were a little bit subdued somewhat leaving and I noticed there was no interaction before they left. So yeah, it was just odd. If he was travelling with the team, it maybe would have been a little better.

“He was sitting beside me watching it, which I’m sure he was thrilled about. We sat down and watched the game, then all the shouting and kicking and roaring started. If you saw me after, you’d thought I would have played the game to be honest with you.

“It was quite emotional at the end. It probably dawned on him at that stage not being there but listen, the priority was Tipp and the result. He was as vociferous as myself shouting at the TV to get them over the line and delighted about the win.

“He would have loved to have been a part of it in some shape or form I’m sure but that’s the way things pan out, injuries happen in sport.”

The lifting of those restrictions this week provides the green light for the three Kennedy boys to head to Dublin on Sunday. Mayo stand in Tipperary’s path as they aim to secure an All-Ireland football final place.

Their father grew up in a hurling stronghold in Clonoulty in the west of the county but there were no strict rules laid down for his sons when it came to creating sporting affections of their own, 20 miles down the road in Clonmel.

john-kennedy John Kennedy at the 2014 All-Ireland final as part of the Tipperary jubilee side. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’d be sports mad, always was. There’s very few I wouldn’t watch. Love soccer, love the football. Where I was, it was predominantly hurling. We played a bit of football as well in Clonoulty.

“But then I settled down here and I think you’re a product of your environment at times. Soccer was quite strong in the town, all the boys played hurling as well. They all went to Rockwell and played a bit of rugby, that was a huge plus for them.

“I’d have been of the opinion that they should play everything and that’s pretty much what they did, experience all the sports. You have to make choices as you get older, particularly at 18 or 19. Jack, I think he could have been on 11 at one stage, it was just untenable. That’s where he chose to give all his efforts into. I think it’s probably the one he enjoys the most.”

john-kennedy John Kennedy in action for Tipperary in the 1990 Munster senior hurling final. Source: INPHO

They didn’t all travel on a straight path to this elite Gaelic football stage. At 26 Colman is preparing for a major game in Croke Park, nine years after he lit up the stadium with arguably the most famous goal in Tipperary’s football history.

After cracking that shot to the roof of the net to clinch minor glory, he played at the same grade for Tipperary in 2012 and then headed off in a different direction.

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

First there were soccer spells in UCC and with Cork City’s U19 team, then in 2018 a season in the League of Ireland in Limerick colours. In between life took him to America when a scholarship offer came from La Salle University in Philadelphia.

“He was always kind of torn between one and the other, it was becoming difficult to do both,” says John.

“Then the opportunity came for him to go to the States on a soccer scholarship.

“Himself and a good friend of his Greg Henry, who was on that minor team as well, went off. Dumb and dumber, I think they’re known as. I don’t know who’s who now! They’re good mates and they went off there. Listen it was a great life experience for them, enjoyed it very much. The college were very, very good to both of the lads.

“He would maybe have contemplated staying over there but I think Trump changed a lot of things over there with visas and all that kind of stuff. He decided eventually after a year working over there to come home. I think he had it in his mind always to play some football and when you have the two brothers involved, for the three of them to all play together, was something they had in the back of their minds.”

patrick-hoban-and-colman-kennedy Colman Kennedy in action for Limerick against Dundalk's Patrick Hoban in 2018. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

This is the first year they have all soldiered together in the Tipperary senior squad. An early November quarter-final with Clare was the first championship game with the three of them on the pitch. Last year had been the start of their club journey in unison, winning a Tipperary senior title with Clonmel Commercials and retaining that crown this September.

23-year-old Jack was the Tipperary senior trail-blazer, ascending to that stage in 2017. He had showcased his talent with a minor team that reached an All-Ireland final in 2015, his football education furthered under Billy Morgan’s watch in UCC with a Sigerson title picked up in 2019.

But another sporting opportunity on the other side of the world cropped up in the summer of 2017. He flew to sample Australian Rules life for a fortnight with North Melbourne in the company of fellow hopeful, Armagh’s Rian O’Neill.

“It was a fantastic experience just to see the setup out there, he quite enjoyed it. Nothing came of it for either of the two boys at that time. It probably turned his head for a little while but he soon settled back into the football here and kicked on at that.

“To see that professional setup. Any young fella would throw a glance at that if he had the opportunity to do it. Whether he would or he wouldn’t, I’m not sure. It’s a long way away and there’s other things to consider but it was a super experience.”

jack-kennedy Jack Kennedy in action at an AFL Combine in 2018. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

At 21 Conal is the fresh-faced member of the Tipperary team who has toasted a triumph early in his senior career. It’s in stark contrast to those in the dressing-room that have toiled for long with little reward.

“It’s incredible in his second year,” admits his father.

“I know everybody in Tipperary were delighted for the likes of Foxy and Alan Campbell and Philip Austin. They’ve been on a long, hard road for a number of years. Conal at 21 years of age, I made sure to tell him doesn’t happen ever year. He’s not under any illusions that this is the norm but it’s great to experience what he has.”

In this bizarre championship, the tension of an All-Ireland semi-final is building up at the unseasonal time of early December. The Kennedy household is a busier place these days. Colman’s work with American company Gambling.com Group and Conal’s third year studies for a CIT course are both being done from home. Jack has recently graduated from UL with an accountancy Masters but his entry to a programme with Deloitte has been deferred, another consequence of the pandemic. Injury recovery is top of his agenda and helping out in John’s Toyota dealership in Clonmel.

“They’re all living at home now the boys, so you’ve the all important mother keeping it all together. Tina’s trying to keep them all fed. We bought another fridge to keep them going.

“Every weekend we’re organising the couch, whether it’s Tri-Nations rugby or Premier League soccer and then you have your GAA in the afternoon. Doesn’t do much for your fitness, mind you.

“Not everybody is in to sport but for those of us that are, it’s great to be able to look forward to those things at the weekend. Brings a bit of drama and excitement to an otherwise drab end of year.

“Caroline is the eldest, she’s in London. She’d normally be home more often, she hasn’t been home since February because of the pandemic and she works in the medical side of things. She’s the subscription to GAA GO, watching all the games and delighted for the lads obviously.

“Tina’s from Holycross and I’m Clonoulty, hurling would predominantly have been the interest but we’ve all become very much football focused over the last number of years with the boys the way the’ve gone.”

colman-kennedy-and-kevin-fahey-celebrate Colman Kennedy celebrates with team-mate Kevin Fahey after the Munster final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They are part of a nine-strong Clonmel Commercials crew on the squad. Neighbouring club Moyle Rovers, Ardfinnan and Kilsheelan-Kilcash collectively supplied another eight players to the match-day panel for the Munster final.

The strides made over the past month have sparked huge interest locally and further afield. The symbolism of the Bloody Sunday commemorative weekend only enhanced that.

“I don’t know what it was but even outside of the county, it seemed to capture the imagination of an awful lot of people. I was amazed with the amount of people that rang me that wouldn’t have been involved with football. There was a lot of emotion attached to it. The Bloody Sunday thing when you looked at it, it would put the hairs standing on the back of your neck. Everything seemed to add to the occasion and then to top if off they won it.

“There was huge goodwill around. I got a lovely card from Pat, the father of the McGraths, I would have hurled with him back all those years ago. They were blazing a trail with the three boys for the last number of years, playing both hurling and football.

“The area down here definitely is a hotbed. Down through the years, it’s probably been the driving force for Tipp football. For all those people that have been involved through the years, they took an awful lot of pleasure out of the Munster final win. It was heartening to see.

“Tipperary is a hurling county, that’s the primary sport and it always will be. I don’t have any problem with that but there is plenty room for the football and they’ve got their time to shine now.”

cathal-oconnor-and-jack-kennedy Jack Kennedy in action for Tipperary against Clare in the Munster quarter-final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

So they’ll settle down in front of the TV on Sunday afternoon instead of hitting the motorway for Dublin that morning and taking a seat in the stands. If there is conflicted feelings over that, John has settled them in his mind.

And with three sons part of a setup bidding to qualify for an All-Ireland final, three decades after he graced that stage in a different code, it will still be a seismic Sunday.

“We’re kind of half acclimatised to it now at this stage, we got to see most of the club games at least this year. It’s amazing how you get used to things. We’re just a little bit detached I guess. I think it heightens the nervousness and the tension maybe a little bit. You’re damaging some furniture, getting fairly excited at home.

“But who’d want to be making the rules in this day and age? It’s very difficult. The vast majority of people are trying to do the right thing. I don’t have any issue with it. I’d love to be able to go to the game on Sunday and see Tipp play Mayo. But in reality this is just a year that doesn’t allow that.

“The fact that there’s three of them involved, sure it’s great. I’ve knocked great enjoyment out of those three lads for the last I don’t know how many years. Sport has been the main focus for me I suppose, I keep saying I’m in the sport department and Tina had to keep the education side going. I was more interested in what they were playing at the weekends.

“We’ll remove all the breakables from the sitting room this time anyway. The year that’s in it, anything is possible. We’re hoping it’ll be a good day again Sunday.”

In a year of upheaval, they have had a few memorable moments already.

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Fintan O'Toole

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