Facing old rivals on the front line

FOR years the Kilkenny-Tipperary rivalry lay idle, softened by the few intermittent meetings that the passing summers deemed fit to bestow, but the Fenians club experienced its resurrection first-hand this time last year.

The club’s grounds in Johnstown lie less than 5km from the Munster county’s border and one day the locals awoke to find the legend ‘Up Tipp’ scrawled across the grey expanse of the perimeter wall.

For club chairman James Tobin, it was his first real introduction to a relationship that once consumed the minds of elder generations as the counties prepared to square up in an All-Ireland final for the first time since 1991.

“Parts of the parish would border Tipp and my mother and father would be terrified of Tipp but I never have been because we have only met them four times that I can remember and lost just the once, 19 years ago.”

Not that there hasn’t been some cross-pollination between the tribes in the north-western tip of the Leinster county. There has, for some time, and there continues to be, in the shape of men like Martin Gleeson.

The Tipp man had turned heads in the area with his hurling gospel at the Vocational school in Johnstown before Tobin, PJ Ryan and JJ Delaney ventured into the neighbouring county to secure his services for the club.

The hope is that Gleeson, Ryan, Delaney and the rest can return Fenians to the heights which accompanied the years immediately after the club’s birth in 1968 when three clubs from across the parish came together.

The impetus for the new outfit was the U21 side that represented Crosspatrick, Johnstown and Beggar and – with the likes of PJ Ryan Sr, Nicky Orr and Pat Delaney in tow – reached the county final.

The Fenians’ first season coughed up a junior title and, with no intermediate grade in Kilkenny at the time, they were upgraded directly to senior where they only fell to James Stephens in the final.

Those roles were reversed in the next decider and that victory kickstarted the club’s golden era with five county titles in seven years, a run that incorporated a three-in-a-row between 1972 and 1974.

Ryan, Orr and Delaney were central to it all. So, too, were other luminaries such as JJ Delaney’s father Shem, Pat Henderson and a medley of others considered almost as talented but less interested in county representation.

The rich seem of talent running through the club can hardly be overstated. Six of their members were nominated for Kilkenny’s Team of the Century, announced in 2000.

Two of them, Pat Henderson and Billy Fitzpatrick, made the final selection while Orr and Fitzpatrick captained Kilkenny to Liam MacCarthy triumphs in 1974 and 1975.

It should be no surprise that the club hit a dip in the years that followed. They came close to repeating the glory days more than once but county final losses in 1978, 81, 93 and 98 have been followed by a retreat into the chasing pack. That may be about to change.

“We won the Junior A final last Sunday,” says Tobin. “Any time we did that in the past we have always followed it up with an appearance in the senior final the following year although the club scene is seriously strong at the minute.”

All that is for another day right now. With Ryan and Delaney anchoring the Kilkenny rearguard this Sunday, there is only one show in town and, unusually, it seems any Fenian who wants to see it firsthand can do so.

“We’re actually not too bad for tickets,” said Tobin prior to Tuesday night when tickets for the final were being divvied out. “We only have 130 members.

“We have a huge amount of All-Ireland winners in the club and they are all well looked after here in Kilkenny. Anyone with an All-Ireland medal gets two final tickets every year, whether they have won one or 10, so that’s 20 or 30 tickets extra for the club.”


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