They were into the dying seconds of the 2010 Kildare minor A football championship final and, with the sides all square, Niall Kelly stood over a 45.
This wasn’t just a chance to win a match; Kelly had a kick to clinch the three in a row for his club. All around St Conleth’s Park, people held their breath, but, on the sideline, Athy’s manager Shane Purcell was poised to celebrate.
Kelly had grown up across the road from him. He was a child, so he was in no doubt what would happen next.
“I was standing beside Trevor O’Sullivan (Celbridge minor manager) and I just said to Trevor, ‘this lad is going to kick this.’” Naturally enough, O’Sullivan was sceptical.
“He’ll never kick it.” Purcell was emphatic. “I’m telling you this lad will kick it.”
Purcell’s conviction about Kelly’s ability to land that 45 is remarkable when you consider the boy was just 16 at the time.
He was still eligible to play minor for another two years, having had the good fortune to be born in January. This wasn’t his first county final either. The previous year he played half-forward when Athy beat Naas to win their second successive minor title.
“When Niall was under-14, the under-16s were looking for him. When he was under-16, the minors were looking for him and when he was a minor, the seniors were looking for him. What Niall did last week in Semple Stadium, he was doing that when he was under-16 playing minors,” says Purcell.
Kelly entered the Kildare development squad system at U14 level in 2008. It was also James Devane’s first year working with the squad. Recently appointed Leinster Games Manager, Devane was previously a Games Development Administrator (GDA) in his native county.
“He was just brilliant, from day one,” says Devane of Kelly. “He’s a quiet personality, just great ability and he has great confidence in his ability. He’s very good on both sides of the body. The likes of working on his left side, Niall knew he had to. He was never big but never gave away much strength-wise. He was always well able to win his own ball, more than people give him credit for. The way he took his goal against Cork, you wouldn’t put speed down as a big thing for him but he is quick.”
Kelly was part of an exceptional U14 group that also included Paddy Brophy and David Hyland. All three played senior championship football for Kildare at 19 and while the pity is that two of them aren’t available at the moment – Hyland signed up with AFL outfit West Coast Eagles in 2014 and Hyland opted to spend this summer in the US – Devane was certain about them from day one.
“If we had this conversation when they were on that U14 development squad, you would have thought that Hyland, Brophy and Kelly would play with Kildare. There aren’t any other players I’d have said that about with the same conviction,” says Devane. Although that group were well beaten by Dublin at minor level in 2012, the following season Kelly was centre- forward for the Kildare seniors against Donegal in the first round of the league. He had yet to play a senior league game with his club but, on his National League debut, in what was his first game at Croke Park, he was man-of- the-match against the All-Ireland champions.
“I remember seeing his dad, Joe, at Croke Park and thinking, ‘Jesus how quickly a lad gets from 14 to playing with Kildare at Croke Park.’ He ran amuck that day, dummy solos and taking them on, typical Niall. Every level he’s stepped up to, he has taken it in his stride,” says Devane.
But by the end of 2013, things turned sour though. Kieran McGeeney had been ousted as county manager and Kelly was sidelined with injury.
Shane Purcell was gearing up for a club championship campaign with the Athy U21s in October 2013 when Kelly’s father, Joe, told him he’d have to plan without Niall.
“Niall is in bits in the house,” Joe Kelly told Purcell. “He’s broke up, he’s in pain.” After visiting a specialist, he was scheduled for surgery in December. The cartilage in his hip joint had suffered a partial tear. His sustained brilliance as a teenager had come at a cost.
He returned to action in a league game away to Derry in April 2014 but by then Kildare were on their way out of Division 1. In the championship, Kelly was limited to a substitute’s role in the qualifier loss against Monaghan. Although he played a starring role as the county U21s reached the Leinster decider this season, Kelly’s hamstring flared up during that defeat to Dublin last April. It’s only now that he’s operating close to full fitness again.
“I had heard that he was a good player,” says Westmeath’s John Heslin, who plays alongside Kelly in the forward line at UCD. “The first game I played with him was the Dublin club championship against St Jude’s in 2013. Even though we lost on the day, I could see the ability that he had as a player. He has a low centre of gravity, he’s nearly like Messi, he’s so low to the ground. He gets around people very easily and it’s hard to catch him.”
Named on this year’s Rising Stars Football Team, Kelly was one of the standout players at third level in 2015. And while it might seem like he has come out of nowhere, this is more like a second coming for the 21-year-old.