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'Still going strong, still influential' - The Tipperary icons nearing 40 and playing key roles

Paul Curran and Eoin Kelly continue to perform at the top of the Tipperary senior hurling game.

Updated Oct 15th 2021, 3:00 PM

Kelly Curran

IN RECENT TIMES they have begun each season in Mullinahone, wondering if this will be the last.

For over two decades the club have been able to rely on two pillars of their team at opposite ends of the pitch.

Paul Curran the defensive anchor, Eoin Kelly shouldering the scoring burden.

Two celebrated Tipperary hurling names, both retired over six years from the inter-county game. Kelly is just after departing as Tipperary selector from the Liam Sheedy era, Curran is about to start in that role as Colm Bonnar’s reign begins.

Curran turns 40 next month, Kelly hits that milestone in January.

Thoughts about the playing endgame are parked though, as their hurling days continue.

Tonight they chase a spot in the Tipperary senior hurling semi-finals, taking on a Borris-Ileigh side that contested the All-Ireland club final last year.

“People from the outside seem more surprised than us,” says Michael Walsh, the Mullinahone secretary.

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“We just kind of take it for granted that they’re there. I suppose the last couple of years, you’re looking at them, the closer they’re getting to 40, will it be their last year? Or maybe they’ll give it another year?

“We won the Seamus Ó Riain last year to come up from the second tier of senior hurling. This year, people were saying would they leave it off? So it’s been a bonus. We would have taken staying up, but we had a goal of trying to get to a quarter-final.

“Would we have got there without Paul and Eoin? Probably not.”

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Nicky English goes back over 40 years to his first hurling experience with the Kelly family.

“It’s interesting with the Kellys, when I started playing, my first year playing adult club was in 1979. We played with Lattin-Cullen in junior and I marked the Kellys’ father.

“Then I became Tipp manager in ’98. Paul Kelly had been minor in ’96, he was quite young at the time but you could see he’d unbelievable pace and a beautiful player. Could really play anywhere.

“Then the brother at home came along. Eoin actually came on in 2000 in the All-Ireland quarter-final as a forward, starting that day as sub goalkeeper. When you think of the highs both of them reached, it was unbelievable. Paul often gets caught in the limelight of Eoin. They were both courageous, not fazed easily.”

nicky-english-digital Nicky English with his All-Ireland winning players in 2001. Source: INPHO

English was the first to press Kelly into elite action with Tipperary but his talents had been long advertised before then.

“I’d heard all about him. He was well heralded, he’d been with St Kieran’s and he was physically very well developed. Lot of power and strength, a lower centre of gravity. He took less time to acclimatise to senior hurling.

“He took frees in his first year in senior hurling for Tipperary and that was it, on you go. That can interfere with general play, frees can become a burden for some, but never for him.”

Kelly dazzled in his first year out of minor, rounding off the 2001 season as an All-Ireland senior medallist, All-Star winner and the Young Hurler of the Year.

Curran was on the fringes of the Tipperary squad then but showing enough to suggest he would later become a mainstay.

“Paul started in my time at senior,” recalls English.

“Playing full-back, he had to physically mature. He was always going to be a brilliant player, it was just a question of time really. He was very eager to learn. Always very physically fit and committed.”

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It’s seven years since the pair’s last major involvement on the championship scene as players with Tipperary.

Both were on the bench for the September replay loss to Kilkenny in pursuit of the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

December 2014 saw Kelly announce his inter-county retirement, Curran kept going until the following April before making a similar decision.

They bowed out after decorated careers. They lost an All-Ireland minor final together against Galway in 1999 before making their mark on the senior scene. Kelly was a central component of the All-Ireland wins in 2001 and 2010, while lighting up Tipperary teams with free-scoring displays in between. Curran was on the extended panel for 2001 and then progressed to a defensive cornerstone in 2010.

Ten Munster senior medals accumulated between them and eight All-Star awards, Kelly’s haul of six putting him top amongst Tipperary individuals with English and Padraic Maher.

Their influence for the club continues to endure. In 1997 Kelly was thrown in as a 15-year-old when Mullinahone lost a county senior final to Clonoulty-Rossmore. In February 2000 they contested a county U21 final from the previous season, long delayed due to wretched weather that winter, but Mullinahone were defeated by Cappawhite.

Then in 2002 came the glorious breakthrough. Mullinahone’s first senior final triumph in Tipperary. Kelly shot 2-7 in that replay success over Thurles Sarsfields.

eoin-kelly-15112002 Club scene: Eoin Kelly in 2001. Source: INPHO

Mullinahone haven’t managed to return to a final and slipped down to the second senior tier of hurling last year in Tipperary. The response was Curran to bolster their defence and Kelly to power the attack, shooting 2-5 in the Seamus O Riain final, as they made a swift return to the top grade.

“They’re still going strong, still influential,” says Walsh.

“Paul at full-back, there’s a lot of the younger lads learning a lot from him, his positional sense and the way he goes about things. Very much the leader at the back and Eoin is very much the leader on the field up front. His free-taking is still spectacular, he’s rarely missing one.

“Even in the club in general, they’re leaders. They’re involved in the underage coaching. Paul is the coaching co-ordinator in the club, he’s a serious role there. Eoin, his young lad Conal is with the U9s, and he’s the coach there along with his brother Paul Kelly, another ex All-Star.”

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Shane McGrath was on pundit duty for the recent Tipperary GAA live-stream of Mullinahone’s game against Toomevara.

“I was praising Eoin so much, unknown to myself, that some guy sent me a GIF on Twitter about it being Shane McGrath’s love-in with Eoin Kelly.

“But I just think people have to realise that Eoin on the field at the age of 39, he’s not going to burn out GPS stats, but his influence on the game is unbelievable, the way he can influence his own players and opposition.

“Those around him know if they get the ball to him, chances are he’s going to score it. Mullinahone do it very well that the younger lads work very hard and then when Eoin sees an opportunity to give a pass to them, he gives it.

“Then Paul in defence, he would admit himself he was never going to hit a load of balls in a match, but what he does, he does so well as a full-back in reading the player, making the full-forward’s day hard. Paul was always ultra-professional.

“They’re both still in great condition, they’ve minded themselves very well.”

McGrath points out longevity is not as unusual with modern club players equipped with the fitness knowledge to prolong their careers. But given Kelly’s back problems in his latter years with Tipperary and his torn cruciate in a county quarter-final in 2016, the persistence is still striking.

And Kelly’s scoring input, 0-26 across Mullinahone’s three senior group games in recent weeks, remains significant.

“I’d compare it to the Fr Dougal Maguire scenario in the Over-75s match, where someone is over by the corner flag but Dougal still has to watch him,” says McGrath.

“If Eoin Kelly couldn’t move but he was on the pitch, standing in the corner, someone would have to go over and watch him, and another fella would have to make sure to cut off the space in front of him.

“That’s what he brings to the thing. Eoin always takes minding, like all the great players. You know there’s a moment of brilliance in him. Even last year in the Seamus Ó Riain final, the two goals he got, they were some finishes.

“To finish when it matters most, that typifies Eoin really and the class he has.”

Over the course of years shared in Tipperary dressing-rooms, McGrath understood the leadership both offered.

“There’s gang of us from the 2010 group, we’re still very close. We were hoping to get away somewhere last year for the 10 years since we won the All-Ireland, Covid took that away. But we’re going to go away a gang of us in a month’s time, that’s a testament to how close the group was.

“I admired Eoin from afar before I started hurling for Tipp, got to know him really well then in college, won a Fitzgibbon together and on the back of that, I ended up going in with Tipp for 10-odd years with him.

“Huge respect for him as a hurler and as a person. Just a top guy. You’d never hear a bad word said about Eoin Kelly.

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“Paul was a kind of Roy Keane type figure. Might never have done anything totally extravagant or unbelievable skill wise, but what he did, he did very well. A man for the big day always. Loved the Munster and All-Ireland finals. He’d be softly spoken but if he felt something needed to be said, he’d say it and everyone would listen.”

paul-curran Paul Curran pictured in Mullinahone last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That has progressed to formal roles in directing the next generation of Tipperary players. Kelly worked as a free-taking coach in 2019 before becoming a selector under Sheedy that December. Curran has specialised in performance coaching. His roles have been varied with the Kilkenny camogie team who have been pushing hard for All-Ireland glories to Russell Rovers, a small East Cork club that reached the junior final in Croke Park in January 2020.

“Paul was player-manager of Mullinahone for a few years and did very well with them,” says McGrath.

“Very professional in his approach to everything in his work and sport. Colm Bonnar would have seen a lot of that in him when he was down in WIT, he would have seen him as a leader. I’d say that’s what he’s hoping he’ll bring to the setup now, very straight talking guy that knows his hurling.

“We’ve seen what Eoin brought then. A lot of people mightn’t know that Eoin would have worked with Jason (Forde) with the frees. Jason was always a very good free-taker but he’s gone to one of the top in the country now. I’m sure he’d be one of the first to admit that having someone like Eoin Kelly coaching you has brought him up a level.”

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eoin-kelly No jacket required: Tipp sharpshooter Kelly in 2013. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

When Kelly retired from Tipperary, amidst the avalanche of tributes to the honours he had accumulated, one statistic stood out.

21-368 from 63 championship outings was a staggering scoring tally, yet for Nicky English it is always another moment that stands out.

“The first day (against Clare in 2001) when those unbelievable two challenges came in from Baker and McMahon, they hit him with everything. They were seasoned, experienced, ultra strong, inter-county players. They hit him their best shot within 20 minutes of his debut, he won the ball, hit the ball and got up. Within a minute of that, he nailed a difficult free from the far side of the field.

“I just said, this was meant for him. The rest after that was never going to be an issue for him because he had everything else. There was no such thing as having to prepare him, he was ready. I could take no credit for producing Eoin Kelly except other than to pick him.”

Witnessing his former players moved into sideline positions is a seamless transition in English’s eyes.

“Their knowledge level is really high and their experience. They’re really suited to those rules. The mentality of those lads, they just love playing hurling, they always did.

“You have to love it to be able to be still doing it for as long as they are.”

“It is remarkable that they’re still in a county quarter-final for Mullinahone at the top level, it’s a tribute to their longevity.”

*****

Michael Walsh is a Kilkenny native, originally from the Erins Own club in Castlecomer. Watching battles on the county stages have left him well able to assess the capabilities of Curran and Kelly, becoming immersed in Mullinahone reinforced that.

“You look at Paul’s influence at the back, with the lack of goals we’ve conceded this year. As a Kilkenny man, Eoin commands great presence and respect, even though we’re fierce rivals.

“His sense of positioning on a field is amazing. A game can take a life of its own but the bigger players always know where to be. That’s not a fluke.

“It meant a lot to them to lift that cup last year in Semple Stadium. At the beginning of the year, we were probably fifth favourites for the Seamus Ó Riain. After losing the first game to Newport, it didn’t look great. We came back from it well in fairness and we improved a little bit with every game.

“Now we’re very much the outsiders of the eight teams that are left for the Dan Breen.

“But that’s fine too, you know.

“And it’s great to see the two lads still putting so much into the club.”

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