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'He was operating at a different level even back then' - the rise of a prodigious hurling talent

Some of those that know him best on the magic of Tony Kelly.

tony kelly

DURING HIS TIME as a minor hurler with Clare, Tony Kelly wasn’t their standout player.

That’s not to suggest that he wasn’t a significant cog in the wheel or that he wasn’t a notable talent. It was just that he happened to be part of a group of players who were equal parts skill and ability; all united in the cause to bring more underage success to the Banner county.

In 2010 — Kelly’s first year on the minor squad — Clare was entering its 21st year without a Munster crown at that age grade. The county had just won its first-ever U21 provincial title the previous year.

Silverware was scarce but a breakthrough was on the horizon. 

The time to become a distinguished individual talent who holds the unique honour of winning the Young Hurler of the Year and Hurler of the Year awards in the one year would come later down the line for Kelly. But for a brief time post-2010, he was one of a bunch of players who all shouldered the burden together.

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And that equal distribution of responsibility yielded quite the collection of titles. Between 2010 and 2014, Kelly was part of Clare teams who won back-to-back Munster minor crowns and three U21 All-Irelands in-a-row.

Kelly wasn’t quite standing out from the pack just yet but his time was coming.

“In the minors of 2010 or ’11, and in the U21 side, we had a few [standouts], we wouldn’t have been just talking about Tony,” Donal Moloney tells The42 when recalling his memories of his time as joint-manager of the Clare minors and U21s.

Alongside Gerry O’Connor, the pair spearheaded that period of underage success for Clare.

“He didn’t command all the attention, others would have had similar type of focus from the opposition. So, we were very fortunate at the time.

“I think what subsequently differentiated Tony was his ability to mature and get better as time went on. And his willingness to learn, and his athleticism and his focus and his ability to embrace setbacks and build his resilience.

“I think that’s what has made him the player he is in the long term.”

tony-kelly Tony Kelly in action for Clare in the 2010 Munster minor final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Field Gang

Robbie Hogan was the manager of Ballyea when they won their maiden senior county title in 2016. He was in his fifth year at the helm when they finally reached the summit, defeating Clonlara by 2-14 to 1-14 in the final after a replay.

But before all that, Hogan was ready to hand in his badge. They had made it to the quarter-finals of the championship in 2015 where they fell short against Kilmaley after extra-time.

“The last puck of the game,” Hogan remembers about the agony of that defeat. “We were two points up and they got a goal.”

After four years of wearing the Bainisteoir bib, he felt this was the time to sign off. It was time to step away and allow a fresh voice to come in and complete the job.

But as Christmas approached and 2015 turned into 2016, a group of players arrived at his doorstep requesting that he hang on for one more swing.

Including Tony Kelly, they’re collectively known as The Field Gang. Not much elaboration is required to explain the origin of the name; they spent a lot of their time at the Ballyea pitch as youngsters.

A piece by Kieran Shannon in the Irish Examiner from December 2016 sums up their fondness for the place.

“Up in the field, they never seemed to tire, never seemed to get hungry. A water tap behind the dressing room — ‘how good or bad it was for you, I don’t know’ — was all they needed to sustain them.”

Hogan can trace out the local geography of The Field Gang and how they’re all connected to the local grounds.

“Jack Browne’s house actually overlooks the pitch. Gearóid O’Connell’s is across the other side of the pitch and Tony Kelly’s is only down across the fields as the crow flies,” says Hogan as he runs through some of the gang members.

Paul Flanagan is in there too as is Joe Neylon. All friends from way back, all key players on that Ballyea side who defeated Glen Rovers in the 2016 Munster senior final, and went on to contest the 2017 All-Ireland final against Cuala.

tony-kelly-celebrates-with-paul-flanagan Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“They spent hours and hours at the pitch.

“They were just always at the field, and that’s how they got the name I suppose.

“I’m only up the road past the pitch and Tony’s car… in the depths of winter, he would be in the gym and the car would be parked outside the pitch. He’d often land with a bag of balls, he’d put them out in a half-circle and spend an hour there just pucking them over the bar.

“It didn’t matter if it was the day after a game or day before a game, he’s a constant fixture working on stuff.”

Winning Culture

Ballyea shares its parish land with the Clarecastle club, home of Clare legend Anthony Daly. For many years, it was the Clarecastle side of the locality that enjoyed the best of it on the pitch.

Hogan explains how things used to be when the rules allowed players from both clubs to join forces.

“Any player that had any promise, Clarecastle was the other side of our parish. So, that would be Anthony Daly’s club. If you had promise at that time, you could play senior but also return to your club and play junior. So, that benefited a lot of players in Ballyea to get exposed to senior hurling.

“But later in years, that rule changed. You had to either transfer or stay playing junior.”

Hogan’s last game for Ballyea was an intermediate county final. Their victory that day entitled them to senior status in the county, but they often found top-tier hurling to be a difficult challenge.

“It was never about being competitive at senior,” according to Hogan, “it was just about staying up really.”

But their fortunes were about to change. From about U14 all the way up to senior, Kelly was on Ballyea sides that contested county finals almost every year.

“It was really tit for tat between Ballyea and Sixmilebridge,” says Hogan, “all those underage games and in fairness, they brought the best out of each other.

“So from U14, it was no fluke that he contested U14, U16, minor, U21 and then senior. The signs were there.”

Kelly had a similar introduction when he came into Clare minor panel. There was no tradition of winning to greet him at the doors of the dressing room.

But Moloney only remembers a player who embraced the challenge of changing that culture in his county.

He recalls one game in particular, during that 2010 season, when Kelly scored the winning point against Tipperary in a Munster play-off tie. That was a “do or die game”, in Moloney’s words, which ultimately sent Clare on their way to Munster success and an All-Ireland final appearance.

“He was very young at the time,” says Moloney.

“He was minor again in 2011 and was just a couple of weeks overage in 2012. You effectively had a guy who was the equivalent of an U16 scoring the winning point.

“He was clearly operating at a different level even back then. I would have first seen him at the end of 2009 when we did tryouts.

“I had heard a little bit about Tony but seeing him in the trials, he stood out. His wrist-work and his athleticism and his attitude and application were standouts.”

Keeping grounded

By the age of just 19, Kelly was already an All-Ireland winner. That 2013 campaign also saw him become the first player to ever win a Young Hurler of the Year and Hurler of the Year award in the one season.

And they’re just the highlights on his CV. He also has a National League medal along with all the aforementioned club and underage triumphs. He captained Ballyea to another Clare championship crown in 2018.

More good times followed while matriculating at UL when he was hurling under the current Clare senior boss, Brian Lohan. After their Fitzgibbon Cup victory over Waterford IT in 2015, Lohan made the interesting observation that Kelly often looks “like he’s playing a different game to everyone else,” such is the depth of his quality.

tony-kelly Kelly was an All-Ireland winner at 19 in 2013. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Hogan agrees with that assessment and points to his clubman’s ability to read the game and spot gaps where scores can be accessed. 

“Tony’s one of the easiest fellas to manage,” he says about Kelly who is just 27 now, with plenty of road left to go at the elite level of hurling.

“Tony would just turn up and train. He doesn’t demand any special privileges. He wants to hurl, he wants to train. And he’ll bring the competitive edge. He’s not going to come to training and because he has this or that won, that he’s going to do any less.

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“He actually pushes himself harder and that has a knock-on effect on all the lads around him. That goes all the way back to U14, it is no fluke that he’s been a part of these teams.”

Next level

In a November episode of The42 GAA Weekly podcast, former Limerick hurler Shane Dowling said Tony Kelly was already assured of a second All-Star gong.

He made that assertion before the All-Ireland quarter-final mark of the season, but his prediction proved to be a safe bet as Kelly slotted into midfield alongside Jamie Barron.

At this remove in 2021, the versatile Ballyea star is on course for a third All-Star. His scoring record from the league makes for tasty reading, particularly if you’re a Clare fan.

Against Dublin in Round 4, Kelly contributed 0-20 to Clare’s overall tally of 0-34. He converted 15 frees that day along with a ’65 as the Banner picked up their second win of the league.

He then posted 2-5, including a stunning penalty, as Clare ended Kilkenny’s unbeaten run to bring their league campaign to a strong conclusion. That result also sets Clare up nicely for the upcoming Munster SHC.

No longer just part of a group who turns the wheel, Kelly is now on an elevated level of excellence. He’s central to everything in Clare’s gameplan. 

“I think what subsequently differentiated Tony was his ability to mature and get better as time went on,” says Moloney about the evolution of Kelly’s talent.

“And his willingness to learn, and his athleticism and his focus and his ability to embrace setbacks and build his resilience.

“I think that’s what has made him the player he is in the long term. When he came off the field, he would have felt he let Clare down because he hadn’t shot the lights out.

“That sense of disappointment is what continues to drive him to become the player he is.

“He wasn’t the type of player who you needed to coach an awful lot. He had a natural ability and things fairly flowed for him. He’d be very quick to pick things up, so from a skills perspective, Tony was ahead of everyone else.

“Tacking would be another area he’s continued to work on. We actually used him recently as part of a coaching demo for tackling.

“That’s the thing about Tony, he’s always willing to help out with young guys as well to demonstrate how things can be done.”

Hogan finished up as Ballyea manager after that All-Ireland final defeat to Cuala in 2017. He had his regrets in the months that followed, trying to figure out why they were outgunned by the Dublin club on the big stage.

Watching them complete back-to-back titles the following year gave him some piece of mind though.

“I kind of said to myself, ‘Any team that can win back-to-back All-Irelands… That’s a serious team.’”

Hogan was reappointed as Ballyea manager before Christmas last year, and will link up with Kelly again in the quest to bring further senior success back to their club.

Just as he did when The Field Gang pleaded for him to stay on, he’s honoured to walk the sidelines for Ballyea once again with one of the best hurlers in the country on his team.

“His ability to bring the whole team with him. Physically, the amount of training that Tony Kelly does. We get to see flashes of his brilliance on the pitch. But the hours of training is nurtured. He’s just really dedicated and loves the game.

“We love to see him coming in the gate. It just brings a new dimension. And that goes for the rest of the county lads, they bring a new pitch to training when they do come back.

“Even during Covid and lockdown, Tony and Jack [Browne] would be running past the house. We’re all neighbours here. They eat, sleep and drink hurling. They just love it. And as I say, as a Ballyea man, if you couldn’t back them up when they come looking for you, you might live to regret it down the line.

“He’s just started building a house in Ballyea so he’s putting his roots down here now as well. That’s great for the club.”

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