The final test for Kelly

THE call came as a jolt to his senses. Midweek in late February 2008 and Patrick Kelly was in a pub in Limerick, watching a Champions League game with a few college friends.

Phone beeped and his Ballincollig clubmate John Miskella’s name popped up on the screen.

Cork’s football winter of discontent had only screeched to a halt a few days previously and new boss Conor Counihan, just ushered in, was assembling a pool of talent. Miskella was delegated to inform Kelly he had been selected for a Cork senior trial match in Páirc Uí Rinn the next Friday. With that missive, plans for a night of revelry were ditched.

“With that call,” Kelly smiles, “things changed. I went straight home to bed after the Champions League match and focused on getting ready for that trial. You’d be fierce nervous going into these things I but managed to get on a few balls and did okay. I got asked to go to a trial game against Wexford a few days later down in Leamybrien in Waterford. I did okay again and they kept asking me back.”

Since then, his football days have travelled in a firmly ascending direction. In 2008 he served his apprenticeship, fed a diet of second-half cameos throughout the league and championship. 2009 has been about making his mark as he’s nailed down the left half-forward berth.

Tomorrow’s All-Ireland final represents the culmination of his progress. He appreciates the grandeur of a Croke Park Sunday in September, but a Cork-Kerry clash at any level is enough to exercise his mind.

From day one, Kelly was aware of the border conflicts. He grew up in Ballincollig on the western side of Cork City, but in his family the Cork-Kerry rivalry was brought into sharper focus as his parents hailed from parishes that skirt the border. His father John is from Rathmore and his mother Kathleen is from Knocknagree. Clashes between the ancient Munster rivals were always blockbuster attractions in the Kelly household. But as Patrick began to flourish up along the ranks for Cork, the tribal loyalties softened.

“There’s always been great banter about these games. I’ve a lot of cousins on both sides but if you’ve a family member involved, there’s great goodwill there. I’d like to think the father is probably Cork now. He wears the Cork gear going to games, I wouldn’t give him a ticket if he didn’t! He never forced Kerry on us, thank God. There’s no photographic evidence of me in a Kerry jersey anyway.

“But he was always football mad. My three brothers play as well so it’s a huge thing in our family. I was never much good at hurling and I packed it in after we got hockeyed in an U16 club game. Given the father’s background, I blame him for me not being much good at hurling. Never had a chance with that background!”

Football was where his heart lay and it was where he thrived. Kelly’s football career has always been played under bright lights and he featured heavily as Tony Leahy supervised sparkling Cork U21 moments. The one he cherishes most was in August 2004 when Cork journeyed down to Tralee to face a Kerry team that paraded stars Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan. Cork entered the game from the shadows and a late point-scoring spree fashioned an improbable win.

But the knack of mining that provincial triumph into All-Ireland gold eluded him. In 2004, Armagh overwhelmed them in Salthill and in 2005, the Meehan and Armstrong show blitzed them in the Gaelic Grounds. And then in 2006 when Mayo ended their interminable All-Ireland final trauma, Cork were forced into the role of submission in Ennis.

“2006 was the worst of all,” recalls Kelly. “We had it and we should have won it. It’s one you’ll always look back on. Twelve months later the lads got it right against Laois. You could say Laois had the upper hand but football’s about winning, hard-luck stories count for nothing.

“You can say you deserve things, but you have to win. You’d be a bit jealous of the lads that went on to win it. But I was up there that day in 2007 and it was great to see the lads finally get the All-Ireland.”

With the club in Ballincollig, he fell in with age groups of supreme talents that developed the unhappy knack of falling short at the final hurdle. In 2001 he lost county finals at U16 and minor level, while 2002 and 2003 brought about the same heartache in minor finals. In school, Kelly was part of a group that helped lift Coláiste Choilm to heights in Munster Colleges football, but the big prize at Corn Uí Mhuirí level eluded them.

“We won the Moran Cup at U-15 and then two Frewens in-a-row, U16½. But we didn’t step up to the mark then at Corn Uí Mhuirí. It was a pity because the likes of Marc Halpin put in a huge amount of work with us. We’d great times and fantastic teams there in school.”

At third-level his football days received further tutoring from the school of hard knocks. In first year he was part of a UCC team that included John Hayes and Michael Cussen, that lost out to Jordanstown in an All-Ireland Freshers final. 2005 and 2006 brought Sigerson Cup dejection at the semi-final stage, with their conquerors both years going on to lift the crowns.

He was out in Bishopstown this year observing Cork IT lift the Sigerson Cup title and admits the sense of envy; he felt great pride in his clubmates Noel Galvin and Stephen O’Donoghue triumphing.

After four years in UCC, his education was not yet over. Primary teaching had always played on his mind as a potential career and halfway through a four year Electrical Engineering degree in UCC, Kelly made up his mind. He completed his UCC degree and then enrolled for a post-grad in Mary Immaculate in Limerick.

The third-level experience in Limerick was one he enjoyed immeasurably. Tackling acclimatisation, he threw himself headfirst into the area he knew best. Football.

Mary Immaculate competed in the second tier of third-level action but had never claimed honours in the Trench Cup. Kelly enrolled in January 2008 and by March they were champions. They had a star-studded side packed with county senior talents like Limerick’s Ian Ryan, Galway defender Gary Sice and Tipperary midfielder George Hannigan.

“We’d a super team that year, almost a Sigerson team really. We beat St Pat’s in the final and it was the first time Mary I won so it was a big deal. This year then I was captain, but injured my ankle and missed the final which we lost to Pat’s. But it was a great time.”

Two months ago he found himself in opposition to his Limerick acquaintances in the Munster final. It was a strange sensation as Cork limped to victory and he observed those he knew in the Limerick setup crestfallen at the final whistle.

“You would feel for those lads. Donie Buckley, Joe Reddington and Richard Bowles are in the Limerick senior management, and they were over us in Mary I. Ian Ryan was on both teams as well. I only saw them briefly on the pitch after, but spoke to Richard on the phone later. You could see it was a tough one to take.”

Cork claimed the honours that day but there were plenty lessons to digest. Afterwards, Kelly and his half-forward cohorts weren’t long being put in the firing line.

“We’d a meeting the day after trying to figure out where it went wrong. A lot of the blame came down to half-forward line. Our showing for the ball wasn’t good and how we positioned ourselves. We dropped too deep on the pitch. That was an eye-opener for us.”

Kelly’s form has flourished since. His chief asset has always been his ball-playing skills and he’s blessed with astute vision and passing. That came to the fore against Donegal when he released Paul Kerrigan for a second-half bullet to the net and with a left-footed loft that almost placed in Daniel Goulding before half-time in the Tyrone match. It’s been a prosperous end to a year that has had some obstacles.

Back in February he damaged ankle ligaments training with Mary I and was left crocked for six weeks. He missed the end of the Trench Cup and Cork’s training camp in Vilamoura, but used the time judiciously to work on his upper body strength. He feels he’s reaping the benefits and his sunny demeanour is not just as a result of football. Last Monday week he enlisted for his first day of employment in Cloghroe National School outside Cork city.

“I’m haunted to get a job as there’s not a huge amount out there. Having finished in Mary I in June, it’s a big relief. I’m in Cloghroe now for the year and lucky it’s so close to home and handy for training. I got fourth class out there with 34 kids. It’s a nice school and a nice area.”

With everything in his life stacked neatly, an All-Ireland medal would round things off nicely. He recalls his first Croke Park experience before an All-Ireland minor semi-final in 2003 where he roomed the night before with Daniel Goulding. Kelly reckons neither slept a wink as they were riddled with nerves. Six years on, he wants to embrace the day. “I remember that minor game I was too nervous in Croke Park, now I’m back I want to make the most of it. You’ve got to enjoy it. We’ve no fear of Kerry, no inferiority complex. It’s 19 years since Cork won Sam.

“It’s all about ending that.”


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