The Kieran Shannon Interview: Eoin Kelly, former Tipperary All Star hurler

Two All-Ireland titles and multiple All Star awards have secured Eoin Kelly’s place in Tipperary hurling folklore. Now he is slowly growing accustomed to life as a former inter-county hurler, but the memories of the glory days in blue and gold are as fresh as ever.

The Kieran Shannon Interview: Eoin Kelly, former Tipperary All Star hurler

IT’S too soon to say he’ll miss it. So far Eoin Kelly has found he’s been too busy to miss it.

Work is flat out at this time of year. When you work in motor finance for the bank, it always is.

At home there’s Sarah and the two kids, both of them under three. This year the big goal is to build a new home for them, on his father’s farm.

The club haven’t started back yet so he hasn’t picked up a hurley since they lost the county semi-final. He now nearly wonders how he fitted in hurling at all. But always he did. For 15 years playing for Tipperary everything else fitted in around it.

Today will probably be the day most like what it was when everything worked around hurling.

A cousin, Joey Maher, is getting married. The church is in Kiltegan, Wicklow, but right after it he’ll be dashing from there up to Dublin for some hurling. The league begins tonight, as does Setanta’s coverage and his time as an analyst.

Then after that he’ll leg it to Carlow for the wedding reception. He hasn’t done as much rushing and racing around the place since he was training with Tipp.

But of course today is different. At least he’ll make this wedding. He missed Joey’s brother’s wedding four years ago because he was over in the White House meeting Obama on behalf of hurling and its reigning All-Ireland champions.

Other weddings he missed because there was a training camp or a game that day.

Then there’s the matter of the game he’s working on. It’s Kilkenny in Cork. He won’t even be watching Tipp’s game.

The last time he wasn’t involved with a league campaign of theirs was back in 2000 and even then he’d end up playing a bit with them that summer.

In a way, he says, that seems such a long time ago. Then in another way it feels like his career has flown by. Maybe because it’s he never really paused to look back on it. He was always locked into the present and the future, that next training session, that next game.

A couple of weekends ago he was down in Scarriff for the opening of a pub run by Brendan McNamara, sub goalkeeper for Clare in 1997. Some of the Clare boys from that time were there: Liam Doyle, Jim McInerney.

Tipp were well represented too: Liam Sheedy, who played against Clare in that year’s All-Ireland, made the journey over the bridge in Killaloe-Ballina, as did his Portroe clubmate Darren Gleeson, along with Lar Corbett.

Their company, chat and craic couldn’t have been better but a song and line from Gleeson’s beloved Bruce Springsteen came to mind: Glory Days. And another from Steely Dan that’s the soundtrack for a particular nostalgia show.

“I was just laughing, ‘Jesus, lads, aren’t we the right ex-hurlers? We’re reeling in the years!’”

Kelly can’t see himself ever being one to wallow in or yearn for the past. But, he accepts, sometimes alright it can be fun and even good for the soul to reflect on it.

Think of the film reel you could put together of Kelly alone through the years. Only Henry Shefflin and Eddie Keher have scored more in championship history. All those goals, scores, glory days.

The first would have to be his first championship start. Clare in Cork: 2001, the last do-or-die Munster championship of them all. It’s now part of Kelly’s legend and Tipp folklore how the teenage Kelly took a ferocious hit from Ollie Baker and Sean McMahon and sprung back up to belt the ball, showing no regard for his safety or any man in his proximity. For everyone it was a statement. For Kelly it was just instinct.

“I thought nothing of it. Nicky English’s training at the time was all based on physicality steeling ourselves for Clare. In one of my first training sessions in Thurles after I came in from doing my Leaving [Cert] and John Carroll hit me a fair shoulder that threw me back on my arse. And I’ll always remember Nicky in the middle of the pitch with his whistle never using it, just saying ‘Get up!’ You were programmed for that hit.”

English could also apply a soft touch to go with that hard edge. A couple of hours before the game when the team were warming up in Douglas, English came up to his rookie corner-forward and free-taker for a quiet word.

“He said to me, ‘Look, I don’t care where you hit them frees today; just care about getting a good strike.’ Sure right away that took the pressure off me. Another fella could have said ‘Make sure now you’ve to make every free today’ but Nicky just knew that if I had the right technique, nine times out of 10 it would go where you want it.”

After that he’d come to love playing in Cork. Ask him what his favourite venue was and he’ll say Páirc Uí Chaoimh every time. Why? Well, because he always seemed to play well there for one thing.

And obviously its atmosphere. “It was a cauldron. Everyone down on top of you. Like a coliseum. I hope they keep that.”

And its surface. “In the summertime it was just like a golf course. A carpet.”

But, above all, its nets. You’ve heard about its surface and atmosphere before but never its nets. They were so tight they were nearly like a trampoline. For the assassin and yet purist in Kelly, that aesthetic, making that net tingle, would send tingles all through him. He becomes visibly animated describing that thrill.

“I used love the nets there. You know the soccer nets in Barcelona or the Bernabeu? The lads hit the net and the ball SPRINGS back out to ya? In Thurles the nets just hang, or at least since they did away with the timber goalposts, so if you hit the back of the net, the ball just dives. I liked getting a goal there and everywhere but it wasn’t the same. But in Cork, I loved that buzz. Even before the game when you’d be pucking around, I’d be nailing it into the net to get that buzz.”

He’d repeatedly experience it down there. In 2002 there was a bullet against Clare in the first round which, he beautifully and nonchalantly recalls, “just left Davy standing”, then in the Munster final a free he buried against Waterford.

Two years later he’d rifle two goals past Justin McCarthy’s men in a Munster semi-final. He’d actually score 2-9 that day. The only pity was that it was registered as just 2-8 and Tipp would lose by a point. Later Waterford goalkeeper Stephen Brenner would admit to Christy O’Connor in Last Man Standing a wonder shot from Kelly’s over by the sideline was a good two feet inside the post but when he jumped in front of the umpire and furiously waved wide, the umpire duly followed. “I couldn’t believe it,” Brenner would say. “Some you get and some you don’t.”

Kelly can only smile wryly now at how true that is. A couple of months earlier the same two sides played a cracking league game in Thurles that ended in a draw. “3-16 to 1-22,” Kelly can still recall. Only Waterford should have won that one by a point.

“I hit a ball about two feet wide that day yet the umpire reached down and put up the flag. I remember chuckling to myself. ‘Ha, ha.’ Shows you. That one in Cork was definitely a point. I ran in alright but the officials weren’t entertaining me. I was afraid I might get a yellow card but I’d be sorry now I didn’t make a bigger fuss out of it. Still, it shows you. What goes around...”

He still has fond memories of days like that. For five or six years there it was the norm for him to play like that. For sure he’d have loved if he was winning more than All Stars and if he had a bit more support with him up front (“We were doing a lot of chopping and changing where we had three or four natural backs in the forwards”). But a large part of him relished that responsibility.

He wanted it. And always, that ball. As he so delightfully puts it, “Sure, all you wanted was the ball constantly down on top of you, near you. You were just chasing it down. It was like a dog being let out onto a field, you were that carefree. It was unreal.”

In 2007 though he was no such free spirit. It would be his first year never nominated for an All Star, having won that award five of the previous six years. In Tipp’s last game of the championship, an All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Wexford, he wasn’t even starting after Babs Keating controversially left him off.

“I’d have no problems with Babs. Any time I bump into him we’re the finest. But that season definitely dented my confidence. I remember even in the warm-up the next year the first day out in Cork we were down by the Blackrock End and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, what am I doing here?’ There was that little voice there after the turmoil of ’07. You were still doubting yourself.”

What happened then? As he puts it himself, the hurler in him kicked in. Chasing that ball like that carefree dog. Twenty-four minutes in he hunted down a ball Seamie Callinan had mishit into the Cork 20-metre line. Tipp were seven points down at the time. He factored that in. And that there was no one either side of him and his marker Brian Murphy. “There’s only thing on your mind then.”

If you don’t know the rest, YouTube it. Turn. Shot. Bullet. That net and buzz in Cork again. After that, Kelly was away again and so were Tipp under Liam Sheedy. In 2010 they would reach their destination, the steps of the Hogan Stand with Kelly leading them up.

“I saw Ciarán Carey on Laochra Gael the other night and the lump in his throat when he was asked did it bother him he didn’t win an All Ireland. What a player. Ken McGrath too. I’m so lucky I’ve won two and I’m the luckiest man alive to have been the captain for one of them. Lucky because was that the first year Tipp changed the captaincy rule where the manager could select it.”

There would be testing times after that. The injuries would rack up, especially ones plaguing his back. The last three years he was off the starting 15 more than he was on it.

“I definitely found the enjoyment went out of it the last couple of years. And it was the people that are closest to you suffered the most. Especially Sarah. You’d be not after starting, maybe not even getting any game time and you’d be bringing it home. You come in the door and you’re moody, you’re cross, just there sitting on the couch, in a total daze. ‘What am I doing? Why am I not getting a game? What can I do to get on?’

“And she’s like, ‘Eoin, what’s wrong with you?! Let’s get the lads ready for bed!’ And you’ve no interest (in what she’s saying) because all you’re bothered about is why you weren’t in today. Sarah even finds me a different person now since I announced I’m not hurling. I suppose the trouble was I probably cared too much about it. I was 110% into it. You were just totally immersed in the thing.”

He knew last September it was time to say farewell. He’d come on near the end of the drawn All-Ireland. He didn’t in the replay, but after the game he knew he had to cherish and capture the moment. As planned, Sarah brought down little Conal from the stands.

“If you said to me what did I get out of 2014, that’s the one thing I’ll treasure. I have the photo up on the wall at home. Even the little one (Eve) when I carry her out, she sees it and goes, ‘Daddy! Coco!’ She can’t say Conal yet. I’d say she feels a little left out. But to have got a picture with him at least in Croke Park is special. In the years to come he’ll probably see books, videos, DVDs with me playing for Tipp but he’s there himself in that picture. I wouldn’t take back 2014 for that alone.”

He leaves with so many other good memories. When he thinks of what he loved, what he’ll miss, the first thing he says is the competition.

“Going hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder with the Kilkenny lads, the Limerick lads, all of them. Or if a team had beaten you the year before you were getting another chance to turn them over. Say, Waterford in the 2009 Munster final. We were just wired for that game [after losing the 2008 All Ireland semi-final]. We weren’t going to be beaten by them again. You loved testing yourself against the best – physically, mentally, every way.”

There was the camaraderie. And the obligation. To Mullinahone. People like his father Jimsy.

“Even to this day,” says Kelly, “I’d hope to do well even playing a club game if he was there.”

Even people from the parish that he barely knew. “After a game you could be chatting to mum and dad at home and they would be saying, ‘We met such and such at the game.’ And you’d be like, ‘What? He goes to the games?’

There’d be buses leaving the village here. And they’d go and maybe have the few pints before but the real attraction was that there was a Mullinahone name down on that programme. For 26 years we’ve had that. Now Paul Curran is the only one left. I always felt you carried that bit of responsibility for your parish.”

It’s time for him to go here. There are other responsibilities he has now. Bank of Ireland Finance have been very understanding of him for the last eight years and now he wants to repay them with more of his time and focus. Same with Sarah and the kids.

There’s that house to build. Setanta to work with. The club to play for, now that the management team was ratified last week. He’s looking forward to getting back out, into shape. Preparing for the future while living in the moment.

“That’s the biggest thing Eamon O’Shea would drill into us. You have to live life in the moment because you don’t know what’s around the corner. I think of poor Lester Ryan. He’s up those steps himself last September, life is wonderful and then a few months later he loses the biggest influence in his life with [the death of] his poor father. We’ve to cherish what we have right now.”

Or if you’re Tipp and hurling, what you had in him.

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