Tony Kelly’s long road to Croker

Tony Kelly closed out 2013 as an All-Ireland winner at senior and U21 level with Clare and a remarkable season was capped with the Young and Senior Hurler of the Year awards.
Tony Kelly’s long road to Croker

AIB All-Ireland Club SHC final

Ballyea (Clare) v Cuala (Dublin)

Friday: Croke Park, 3pm

Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary)

TV: TG4 Live

Four years later he still hasn’t returned to Croke Park, a statistic that neatly sums up the difficulties he has encountered as a senior hurler with Clare.

One of the players of his generation will finally grace the home of Gaelic games on Friday though it has taken a monumental club run with Ballyea to get him back to Croke Park as Clare’s isolation continues.

“No, it probably shouldn’t be so long but at the same time you have to be getting to the last four of the All-Ireland to be playing here unless you’re in the Leinster championship,” said Kelly.

“If you told me in 2013 coming off the field with Clare the next time I’d be in Croke Park would be with Ballyea in 2017, I would have said, ‘Jaysus, I won’t be here for a very long time so’.”

Cuala, who Ballyea play on Friday, should be much more at home at Croke Park.

A large chunk of their team are Dublin regulars who have played league and Championship games there, even Walsh Cup finals.

“You don’t know coming up with your club how lads will respond to it,” admitted Kelly.

“At the same time, we have nine or 10 lads who have played there with Clare in either football or hurling so we have a good spread of lads with experience but I suppose Paddy’s Day is going to be a lot different.

“The lads who have played there before, it’s about the experience they have gained and what they can give to the lads that are normal club players that have never graced there.

"We did get a run out recently so lads got to come out and see the surroundings of it, to get a few pucks, a bit of shooting.

“At least you’re leaving no stone unturned in terms of getting lads acclimatised to it.”

No Dublin side has ever reached this stage before let alone won a club decider though Cuala are favourites approaching the contest. Kelly isn’t surprised.

“No, once they got out of Dublin, and once they won their first round in Leinster, I thought they were the favourites left in it,” he said.

“You’d always be watching who’d be coming out of Kilkenny really. That’s your kind of gauge in Leinster, who’s going to come out of Kilkenny and I thought when O’Loughlin Gaels came out that Cuala would get to the final and win it.”

Con O’Callaghan, who only appeared as a sub in the county final following his return from the county football panel, has since scored 7-13 in four games and will be a marked man.

“It’s easy to get caught up with Con O’Callaghan because he’s got six or seven goals scored,” said Kelly.

“You could get caught up with that and try and mark him and have this plan for him and do that with him but you can be taking away from your own game as well with that. It’s a once-off game. We’re trying to come up and to just play off the cuff and do what’s got us here.”

Kelly admitted there’s a certain irony that Ballyea are one of just two club teams still standing in the country when for so long they struggled in Clare.

“We’d have always been seen as a dangerous team on a given day in Clare, that if you drew us we might beat you,” said Kelly.

“We’d never have been seen as a team that, from the offset, ‘they’ll go to a semi-final’ or ‘they’ll get to a final’.

"We’ve always been seen as a team that could catch you in a first round but I think the stats are that we’re unbeaten in two years over 60 minutes.

“We’ve been beaten in extra-time in last year’s (2015) Clare championship and we were beaten in extra-time in this year’s (2016) Clare championship in the first round.

"But we haven’t been beaten in 60 minutes for two years so there is a togetherness there now, a never say die attitude with us.”

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