When Michael Fennelly couldn’t even walk without feeling pain in his back, he could hardly have imagined the celebrations he would be part of only a few months later as Kilkenny won a 35th All-Ireland title.
Fennelly had felt something wasn’t right despite scoring three points against Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final in June, before he suffered a back spasm in training two days before the semi-final against Galway.
The source of the problem was unclear, as was a precise diagnosis, but it necessitated more than a month spent on medication to control the spasms. Worse, the 2011 Hurler of the Year had no idea how long it would keep him out.
The medication eventually worked and Fennelly, with his brother Colin, was instrumental in the All-Ireland semi-final win against Limerick. And he admits there was an extra pinch of motivation before the renewal of the recent intense rivalry against Tipperary. Last year’s championship was described as one of the greatest ever, without Kilkenny where they normally expect to be. New tactical refinements also formed part of preparations.
“It was a bigger challenge again because the sense out there was that hurling had changed. That it had gotten faster and younger and that Kilkenny weren’t maybe up to that standard anymore.
“To be fair to Clare, they did bring it to a new level. Teams look for different edges and tactics have come into it a lot more over the last couple of years. People are looking at the weaknesses of teams and coming up with special ways of beating different teams.
“It’s getting more tactical and more interesting, to be honest. Every game you play is just massive and no one knows who’s going to win. When you’re up on a pedestal teams are looking at ways to beat you. You can’t just go out and play 15 against 15. You have to rejig it and try something better.”
Fennelly identified one particular area he felt was crucial to winning the replay against Tipperary.
“We squeezed space and the lads went man for man, too. We were winning the puck-outs. There were aerial balls caught in the first half by Pádraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley and when you’re winning high ball then you’re controlling the game straight away because the ball isn’t breaking anywhere.
“Really, that put us in the driving seat, and any breaks that there were we were latching onto them as well.”
Fennelly rejected the notion the latest milestone could mark a changing of a number of old guards.
“I think the answer was in the All-Ireland final this year. We had a good team there, and a good age. Lads like Jackie Tyrell, Brian Hogan and JJ Delaney, they’re all still here and massively key to the whole system.”
“It all depends on when it’s your time, I suppose. Henry [Shefflin], he’s 15 or 16 years there now, he’s won his 10th All Ireland, and for a 35-year-old he’s still in great condition, he’s still one of the fittest on the team, I’d say without a doubt.”
He also expects to see the same name on the text message he gets every year outlining plans for a continuation of the dynasty.
“Hopefully this year we won’t get one until January! You’d be half dreading it, thinking about the year ahead, but we’re just going to go back to our clubs now and that’s where the focus is right now.
“That’s the most important thing.”
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