PM O'SULLIVAN: 21st century hurling’s finest midfielder?

Michael Fennelly’s retirement last week, both inevitable and a bit unexpected, pushes further into shadow one of hurling’s most remarkable eras.

The inevitability? Fennelly’s struggle with back problems all through this decade. The Kilkenny midfielder had hardly come to prominence, making 2010’s Hurler of the Year shortlist, before these difficulties threatened to guillotine his potential.

This issue required imaginative handling by management. Michael Fennelly more or less became the Paul McGrath of hurling, with collective training minimised so as to maximise championship impact. Hearing this retirement news, Eddie Brennan tweeted: “trained three times in summer 2011 & won HOTY nobody else”.

A player not training with his colleagues nearly always leads to resentment. Fennelly’s key contributions in vital matches made him an exception. He quickly became one of Kilkenny’s most important hurlers, a status recognized by that Hurler of the Year award.

That touch of unexpectedness? Michael Fennelly had recommitted for 2018 and gone back in training.

He explained in his press release: “I feel my body has surpassed its limits at this time”.

I saw myself how he did everything possible, last autumn, to get himself on the field for Ballyhale Shamrocks. The club going down hard in the semi-final to James Stephens was in no way his fault.

He hurled, mainly in the forwards, with good effect. But four games in five weeks pared his contribution in the fourth one. The roster, rather than a specific opponent, beat him.

Last July, the same taper was evident on the intercounty stage. Restored to the Kilkenny team for their first round qualifier with Limerick, Michael Fennelly made a decisive contribution to a sluggish three point victory. Without him there, Kilkenny would have lost.

But the same torque, a week later against Waterford, was not there. Lack of rest had beaten him.

These two experiences probably enforced realism, heel of December’s hunt, about what 2018 would entail.

You could say Michael Fennelly is the first casualty of hurling’s new structure. The week on week action demanded by this rejig would not have facilitated him.

Michael Fennelly’s departure leaves a serious gap. That potential, so fragile in 2011, became a heyday. His gifts were the cornerstones on which Kilkenny built a new castle, four senior titles between 2011 and 2015. For all the current gloom on Noreside, the county leads this decade’s roster via those four wins. Tipperary will need to take the next two titles in a row to match this haul.

Nobody expected this eventuality when Tipperary beat Kilkenny by eight points in the 2010 senior final. Kilkenny had been floored, on and off the field. Henry Shefflin’s cruciate injury got mishandled, sucking energy out of the group.

Now it is September 2015, last quarter of the senior final. Galway’s Andy Smith is barracking Kilkenny’s TJ Reid as he goes to take a free. Michael Fennelly lollops over, like a gundog retrieving a snipe, and removes Smith to a respectful distance.

Kilkenny proceed to beat Galway by a four point margin that was really a seven point one. Michael Fennelly put more things back in a box than the best magician’s apprentice.

His specific gifts? While physique stood out, the quality of his hurling remains underappreciated. Comfortable taking a point, right and left alike, he struck few wides. A stroke high up off either side, hurl held short, was mastered, all but removing the possibility of being hooked.

Michael Fennelly proved remarkably agile and balanced for a man of 6’ 3” or more.

Once in possession, he could step off either foot, accelerating into top speed within a few strides. Suddenly he was gone.

Besides, who could bottle him up, given that physique?

His ability to win possession in the tight, stooping low with quick hands while remaining erect, was without compare. Remaining in this body position granted him the power to break the ruck.

Equally, Fennelly devoured high ball because he did not make the mistake many tall men do, which is not jumping. Tracking back when facing his own goal, questing for a hook or a block, counts as another massive asset.

Many backs and midfielders are quick going away from their own goal.

Comparatively few are quick to chase when heading back the way. Then again, Michael Fennelly was tidy enough, at 19, to win an U21 All Ireland in 2004 at left corner back.

You have to go back to Clare’s Ollie Baker for someone able to dominate midfield in similar terms. Baker hurled as all but a force of nature in 1997 and ’98, two seasons on the trot. Michael Fennelly managed pretty much six seasons at this level of influence.

I

s there not sound argument to say he retires as 21st century hurling’s finest midfielder? Cork’s Darren Sweetnam, the tyro who looked most like a Michael Fennelly in the making, got lost to rugby.

A curiosity of Fennelly’s career is that he never found a consistent partner. Seven senior finals between 2010 and 2015 saw him paired with Conor Fogarty for 2014’s replay and 2015. Fennelly started at wing forward in 2014’s draw.

Otherwise it was musical chairs at midfield: James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick (2010), Michael Rice (2011), Richie Hogan (2012 draw), Cillian Buckley (2012 replay). That Fennelly remained so consistent in this context attests to serious big day prowess. He did so without finding, as Frank Cummins did, a Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien, a yin to his yang.

Having waited his moment, Michael Fennelly arrived with a secret momentum. His retirement statement acknowledges 2009 as “a particularly challenging year on a personal level”.

He did not enjoy captaining the team from the bench. He has spoken about the 2009 team holiday, about sitting in a pool with Michael Kavanagh and broaching the idea of early retirement.

He was acutely frustrated and so came acute momentum once Fennelly did, at 25, establish himself. The rest of his career? Mainly the click of boxes.

Now he is gone, inevitably and unexpectedly so. Great eras are forever bound for shadow. Feast always means some following measure of famine.

So what about this idea that Kilkenny will stop being Kilkenny if they do not continue winning senior titles at the rate experienced during Michael Fennelly’s career?

Eight titles in 10 years, to be plain.

Although I do not grasp the logic, I perfectly get the resentment behind it. Quite understandably, hurling people will not want to see Kilkenny win a significant championship game for the next long while.

Yet the notion that Kilkenny will be grievously disappointed if they do not continue at this lick is a canard. Disappointment at not maintaining that rate would be as silly as being disappointed by cold meat sandwiches on St Stephen’s Day.

The magnitude of Kilkenny’s rise to 36 senior titles, with Cork on 30 and Tipperary on 27, is only now registering in full extent. How young would you have to be, as a Cork native, as a Tipperary native, to anticipate seeing your county back top of the senior roster? No magician’s apprentice can keep those facts in a box.

Cork will require an extraordinary decade to move near Kilkenny. Tipperary require an extraordinary two decades.

2018 and Kilkenny? The last season is always the most relevant yardstick. Judging by 2017, they are no longer a top six team. Michael Fennelly’s retirement further reduces the number of proven performers in the county’s ranks.

Yes, Kilkenny is a negative place at the best of times. Contemplating the next few seasons, natives anticipate far more shade than light.

F

or sure, Kilkenny hurling faces plenty of challenges and a fair amount of problems.

The hallmark of last season was staleness and people are struggling to see, with no substantial alterations in management, where freshness will accrue.

Even so, winning multiple All Irelands in short order is nobody’s fret.

I am reminded of a cameo in a Kilkenny pub the Wednesday after the 2016 senior final. Little Andy’s, Ormonde Road: a Tipperary native, along with a host of locals, is a regular there that night of the week. The locals made sure to shake their Tipp friend’s hand, congratulating his county’s emphatic win: “No arguing with what we saw on the day…”

Then an odd reserve was detected. People wondered about the Tipperary native’s lack of elation.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Ye’re just not upset enough.”

“Ah, look it,” came one reply. “Last Sunday, the best Tipperary team in 50 years beat the worst Kilkenny team in 15 years. What have we really to be upset about?”

Hurling aficionados will be living in the after echo of that exchange for a fair while yet, however Kilkenny fare in 2018.

Fennelly is the first casualty of hurling’s new structure. The week on week action demanded by this rejig would not have facilitated him


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