Just 12 months ago, Newcastle West were three minutes from relegation from the senior championship but somehow survived against Claughaun. This week they are 60 minutes away from wrestling the Limerick senior crown off the champions.
And county star Kelly admits that flirtation with relegation was the starting point for his side’s 2011 heroics.
He admitted: “That was an eye-opener. In that relegation final it could have gone either way. Fellas stood back afterwards, had a look at things and realised that we had to up it and do whatever it takes to get to where we want to be. At the start of the year we sat down and had a players’ meeting where we outlined our goals. Everyone had a mindset that we were going to improve from last year. And we have.”
Crucially, this season Newcastle West got off to a winning start, taking the group stage of the championship by storm, helped by an injection of youth from their U21-winning sides from 2008 and 09, as well as the 09 county minor-winning team.
The confidence of these young players — such as Jamie Lee, Thomas Quilligan, Paul Hannon and Ian Corbett — has not gone unnoticed by Kelly, who is one of only two current Newcastle West players, along with Shane Kelly, who featured in the club’s last county final; an 04 loss to Dromcollogher/Broadford.
He continued: “The introduction of the young lads has benefited us hugely because they have brought a winning mentality with them. We might have a lot of young lads but youth can be a good thing too. Sometimes they don’t show the respect to their elders which can benefit us a small bit. Winning is a habit, just like losing, but luckily we have been winning this year, just coming out of tight games. Those are the games we lost last year.”
Stephen Kelly, who along with his young brother James, are Newcastle West’s two Limerick seniors, while champions Monaleen can call on inter-county men such as Ger Collins, Barry Fitzpatrick and Paul Kinnerk, as well as proven footballers in Muiris Gavin, Eoin Keating and Jason O’Brien, and Limerick hurler Seamus Hickey.
Kelly has massive respect for tomorrow’s opponents. He argued: “Monaleen are coming into this final in a very strong position. Obviously they are Limerick champions. They have massive experience within the squad. They have some very talented players and I know from the county set-up that the lads they have there are very good. We are up against it. If we are still in it with 10 minutes to go, let’s see what happens.”
And not many would bet against Newcastle West at least pushing Monaleen all the way because they have the scoring power — they racked up 2-11 in the semi-final against Drom/Broadford — but Monaleen have a habit of coming good at the business end of the season. They may have just scraped through the group stages, where they relied on other results (a Galbally win over Adare) to advance, but with players for the big occasion, such as Ger Collins and Barry Fitzpatrick, Monaleen are rightful favourites for tomorrow’s decider.
But that doesn’t bother a Newcastle West team dreaming of winning the Limerick SFC for just the third time (1987 and 92), with Kelly adding: “People are always saying we should be doing better for the size of the town that we are. It would be massive for the town itself if we won because it would give the youth of today something to strive for tomorrow, to go on and achieve better things for the club.”
*Limerick SFC final: Newcastle West v Monaleen, Gaelic Grounds, 3.30pm