Missed free? I can’t remember it

Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly is physically stronger and mentally tougher than at any stage of his glittering hurling career — right down to the practised art of selective amnesia perfected by Jack Nicklaus.

HE didn’t script it, it just came blurting out, that line about sinking ships.

About the only time Eoin Kelly put any thought into his All-Ireland-winning speech was the night before the final itself as he rested against the headboard of his bed at home, pen and paper in hand, and set a few ground rules for himself.

One: he was only going to allot a few minutes to this lark.

Two: there was no one in the backroom team that he was going to leave out.

Three: anything after that would be all off the cuff.

When the group met up on Sunday morning, he handed his slip of paper to kitman Johnny ‘Hotpoint’ Hayes with his list of names and cúpla focal salutation above it. “There, Johnny, will you hang on to that in case we need it afterwards.”

Yet after Hotpoint handed it back to him on the steps of the Hogan Stand, out it still gushed. “He came in when this ship was sinking, but by God is this ship sailing today, all the way from Portroe! Our Messiah, our leader, Liam Sheedy!”

Even the most reserved of Tipperary fans revelled in that passage of Kelly’s stirring address, not only because it was a succinct acknowledgement of Sheedy’s achievement, but because they interpreted it as a subtle yet unmistakable swing of the elbow aimed at Babs Keating who had relentlessly thrown digs at Sheedy throughout Sheedy’s tenure and had clashed with Kelly in his own previous stint as team manager.

In 2007 Keating chose not to start Kelly in the All-Ireland quarter-final on the grounds the player wasn’t fit enough, something Kelly and his world-respected physical therapist Ger Hartmann publicly disputed in the days either side of the game. That day Tipp would suffer the ignominy of losing to Wexford and that season remains the only one in Kelly’s ten years as a senior hurler that he failed to be nominated for an All Star. Yet, Kelly insists, he didn’t mean to castigate anyone last September.

“I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth and I’d put my hand on my grandmother’s grave, there were no arrows being shot anywhere that day. All I was trying to say was I couldn’t compliment the four boys [Sheedy, Michael Ryan, Eamonn O’Shea and Cian O’Neill] enough for what they had done for us. I had no intentions of having a dig at anyone, and I mean that.”

Yet, the fact remains, it did come gushing out. Something within him couldn’t help itself, painting a vivid contrast between the set-up Sheedy inherited and the one he established. And Kelly will accept, for years there, including — especially including — 2007, Tipp were at nothing when they had the talent to do so much.

“You have to be organised and we just weren’t organised, simple as that. What summed it up was the amount of players we went through. In the three games against Limerick there was fierce chopping and changing, the same in the qualifiers when we were very lucky to beat Offaly. It was just a pity. It was another year of your career basically wasted.”

He maintains he was fit to start against Wexford — “Sure I came on after 20 minutes; if I was fit enough to do that I was fit enough to start” — and admits that at the time “my confidence was completely knocked”. But it was a crisis that was weathered — “I was lucky that I had strong family support at home” — and you sense that even if he hadn’t won an All Ireland last year, the memory of that 2007 season would still evoke little emotion or sense of victimhood or much consideration on his part.

“To be honest,” he says, “that year is a blur at this stage.”

Kelly has a tendency to do that — to basically distort or even erase anything that might affect his confidence. The following 2008 season, Kelly would instigate Tipp’s dominance of Munster with a breathtaking game-changing goal against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh which preceded his four points from play in the Munster final, but that year’s All Ireland semi-final against Waterford also hinged on a play of Kelly’s.

With four minutes to go, Kelly had a marvellous opportunity to level the game with a ‘65 essentially in front of the posts. But it sailed wide, and with it, Tipp’s best chance of sealing a replay or a final spot. It was the kind of play that would haunt a player all through the winter and stay with a part of him for the rest of his career, yet mention it to Kelly and he’s stumped.

“What miss was that?”

“The one against Waterford in ‘08.”

“I might have missed a few that day,” he laughs. “Which one was that? I can’t remember it.”

“The one with four minutes to go! Into the Hill 16 end. About the only one you missed all day. The one when it was all on the line, the one that would have levelled it!”

“Would you believe it, I can’t remember it.”

“Seriously? A free of that magnitude?”

“Genuinely. I actually cannot remember it.”

Jack Nicklaus would approve of such amnesia. Bob Rotella, Padraig Harrington’s mental skills coach, tells the story of when he attended a fund-raiser at which Nicklaus remarked that he’d never three-putted or missed from inside five feet on the last hole of a tournament. After that a member of the audience just had to raise his hand at question time; only the previous month in the senior PGA he’d seen Nicklaus miss a three-footer on the last hole. Nicklaus politely but firmly told the man he was wrong; he’d never missed inside five feet on the last hole of a tournament. The man persisted, volunteering to even send Nicklaus a copy.

Nicklaus interrupted. “I repeat, sir. I have never missed…”

Rotella could only smile. That was part of what made Nicklaus great. As Nicklaus himself once put it, why reinforce bad shots by remembering them? His forgetfulness wasn’t a tendency but a skill. And Kelly, either naturally or deliberately, appears to have developed the same skill, which might explain why he himself has — as a matter of empirical fact, not just opinion — never missed a free in an All Ireland final.

We’re talking about that missed free because we’re talking about hurleys and possible reasons why Kelly has been using the one he does since the start of 2009. The makeup of the hurley has always been tantamount to the Kellys and in a way the Kellys have contributed to how hurleys have evolved too.

When John Leahy was coaching Mullinahone he observed that Paul and Eoin Kelly’s hurleys were always shorter than everyone else’s but their bas, that bit wider. Last month in these pages Paudie Butler spoke about how the heavy hurley had been the enemy of generations of children but Kelly’s father Jimsy appreciated what Butler did — that hurling was a wristy game — and for his kids to get in a puck in either Croke Park or the family’s small lawn, they needed hurleys they could swing in phoneboxes.

“I’d say I’m a hurleymaker’s nightmare,” smiles Eoin. “It has to be just right. The hurley I use is 34 and a half [inches]. I’d say I haven’t changed it since I was 16. I might have gone up the odd quarter inch alright but that’s it. The reason I’d still be so particular with the hurley is because I’m taking frees. If I wasn’t taking frees I’d say I’d go with a lighter hurley but you want a bit of weight in it for the long-range frees.

“I’d have a couple of hurleymakers — a local fella, Jim O’Brien, and the Dowlings in Kilkenny. But if you came in here with three hurls and I liked one of them, chances are I’d bargain with you and say, ‘Jeez, is there is any chance you’d swap that?’ At this stage I’ve probably only got two or three hurleys that I’m really happy with. I always bring four or five with me even though I never break a hurley, but there’s only the two or three I’m really happy with. The one I use in games now is one of the Dowling hurls. I just picked it up one day coming out of the garage. I probably didn’t use it straight away but then kind of shaped it a bit and it was just right for me.

“As a hurler you could have a good hurley and then it could break. There might have been no hoop on it so you get it fixed, it comes back with a hoop and it’ll be a bit different. You’ll say, ‘Jeez, that’s not what it was when I had it before.’ But it’s not just me now. I heard one of the other lads up in Carton House last month talking about his hurley, saying, ‘It used to be one of my favourite hurleys until I got it hooped.’ It just wasn’t the same.”

As a kid he’d hardly leave a hurley out of his hand. All day, every day he’d either be out pucking around the lawn or against the wall, prompting Leahy to once comment, “I’d say that chap never improved skill-wise; from the time I saw him first in the field as a six-year-old he was unbelievable.” Last year he put it away in October when the season finished up with the club and he didn’t pick it up again until the middle of January. When he thinks of it, he probably could do with getting some more ball work in on his own but he’d still like to think his commitment levels haven’t wavered since he was a youngster. In his early 20s when he was routinely winning All Stars he’d develop a “tunnel vision” focus from January 1 and for the rest of the year, while in more recent seasons he’s kept better check of his conditioning in the pre-Christmas period by keeping himself ticking over in the gym and playing five-a-side soccer.

He’s had to endure some painful injuries. A few years ago he was plagued with back trouble, while he missed most of this year’s league after sustaining a finger injury against Offaly. But he’s learned to be patient and positive about these things. His latest layoff allowed him more time to stretch and loosen up the back which, he says, is in the best state it’s been in for years. He could have been back within a month of the Offaly game but it would have meant readjusting his catch and his grip of the hurley and risking further injury again; better to give it the extra month and let it completely heal rather than squeeze out a couple of pedestrian league games.

There’s a notable self-assuredness about Kelly. In March, a month after marrying his childhood sweetheart Sarah, he famously met President Obama in the White House. On the day we meet he’s shooting the breeze with Ronan O’Gara at an Adidas promotion, not just about their common love for Liverpool FC, but the way they prepare for competition. Michael Ryan was always struck by Kelly’s maturity ever since he broke onto the county panel as an 18-year-old in the summer of 2000 but even he was taken by Kelly’s leadership off the field as well as on it in Ryan’s time serving as a selector to Sheedy. Kelly always seemed to be able to set the right tone and say the right thing at the right time, being able to gauge when to lighten the mood too; he’s known within the panel to be able to do a mean Pat Shortt impersonation. In public and with the media he desists from treating us to such entertainment, but while he’s more guarded and polished than say a Shane McGrath would be, there’s something very personable about him. Throughout an interview he’ll regularly ask for your view on things, a practice, friends have noticed, he’ll carry out in any form of conversation. As one observes, “He’ll join your company and it’s not a case of ‘Look at me’, but ‘Look, how are you?’” He’s similarly unassuming within the team. No longer are Tipp over-dependent on him for scores and while he remains a star, the real star is the team and Kelly is mindful and willing to put in his shift for it. For all his renowned flair, fire is what his game is built on.

“Working up close with him, I couldn’t get over the man’s ability to scrape for and win dirty hard ball,” says Michael Ryan. Like Michael Jordan once he hit his 30s, Kelly has had to evolve through the years and the injuries to offset any slippage in his explosiveness. Enda McEvoy noted upon Joe Deane’s retirement in 2008 that a dainty ball-playing corner forward would now be obsolete and eaten up in the power-packed game en vogue since Kilkenny embarked on their four-in-a-row, yet Kelly has survived.

“My game has changed because hurling has changed,” nods Kelly. “One night in training, Declan Ryan said to us he couldn’t get over the hits that are going in these days, even from when he was over the minors in ‘07, never mind when he was playing. There are more injuries than ever before now and you can see. You look at years like ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, ‘05, ‘06; it was nearly one on one, lads tussling for the ball, whereas now there’ll be three lads straight away descending upon on you, and you can’t get the ball out. The way I’ve adapted is to get rid of it quicker and bulk up in the gym and take the hits.

“My intensity in training has gone way up. Kilkenny raised the bar and we had to meet it. If you don’t bring work-rate you’re only fulfilling a fixture. You stick your head in over any wall it’s the same thing; Clare and Limerick in the Division Two league final; fellas hunting in packs. You have to train for the hits in training, in 2 v 2 games, 3 v 3 games.

“But I don’t mind that. There’s nothing as nice as seeing a forward throwing his head in for a block and breaking it down and maybe kicking it on with his feet, and another lad picking it up and putting it over the bar. Those kinds of scores, what they do for the crowd, what they do for the team, is massive altogether.”

So is what Eoin Kelly continues to do for Tipperary. With him on board their boat won’t be sinking anytime soon.

Picture: Sportsfile


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