Eamonn Kelly doesn’t do straightforward. Never has.
When he took over his native Kildangan in 2000, the club’s intermediate hurlers who were without a championship win for three years. Then there was his role with the Loughrea hurlers in 2012, the Galway club having lost two of the previous three county finals. His job with Ballybrown the year following was to preserve the Limerick club’s senior status and when he stepped up to inter-county level in 2014, he was tasked with changing the collective mindset of the Kerry hurler.
Last September he was approached by members of the Offaly County Board to gauge his interest in taking charge of a team that had fallen outside hurling’s top 10, had lost to neighbours Laois in a championship game for the first time in 43 years and consequently, would have to ply their trade in a qualifying group to gain entry into the Leinster championship proper this summer.
For Kelly, the decision was a no-brainer.
“I enjoy a challenge,” he says. “With Kildangan, we won the county championship in 2004 and the All-Ireland in 2005. With Ballybrown, we won the city championship in 2013. Once you have a bunch of guys willing to go the extra mile, anything can be achieved. Kerry showed that.”
The first item on Kelly’s list when taking up his latest post was clearing out those not willing to raise the bar.
“We want a bunch of guys who will make huge sacrifices. We have dropped a lot of guys along the way who weren’t prepared to go the extra mile and who may have got away with it in the past. We have had a few ups and downs along the way, but at least we now have a very committed bunch.” And their ambitions? Brian Carroll commented on the week of his retirement that the mindset of the current crop of Faithful hurlers is far removed from the All-Ireland title-chasing squad he joined at the turn of the millennium. Kelly says expectation is low, but what else do you expect after a number of chastening summers?
“We are not aiming towards league promotion, Leinster finals, and what not. At the minute, we are trying to change the approach of how the Offaly hurler prepares. We are trying to get them to prepare the same as Clare, Kilkenny, and Tipperary. The lads are giving a huge effort.”
Kelly’s predecessor Brian Whelahan took umbrage with having to rely on neighbouring counties, such is the lack of adequate facilities in Offaly. Kelly, though, doesn’t see it as an issue. “You play the cards you are dealt. You go where you have to train. I recently passed the Faithful Fields development in Kilcormac. That is going to be a massive asset to the county when complete.”
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