Fennelly: Conal Keaney up there with Henry Shefflin among the greats

Kevin Fennelly handed retiring Dublin hurler Keaney his debut
Fennelly: Conal Keaney up there with Henry Shefflin among the greats

Conal Keaney of Dublin celebrates following the 2019 Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 5 match between Dublin and Galway at Parnell Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Kevin Fennelly, the Dublin manager who handed Conal Keaney his Championship debut 20 years ago, has placed him as one of the players of his generation.

Keaney has called it quits at 38, just weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of that Leinster SHC debut against Laois in 2001.

The Ballyboden St Enda's teenager was still a Leaving Cert student when he came on as Fennelly's first sub in a dramatic one-point defeat at Nowlan Park.

Keaney was nominated for a hurling All-Star two years later before switching to play football until 2010 and returning for the Anthony Daly era.

Fennelly, who guided Kilkenny to the 1998 All-Ireland final, said Keaney would have starred for any county such was his power and quality.

"I remember at that stage when Conal was breaking through and I said to a friend of mine in Dublin, Brendan O'Malley in Na Fianna, that he'd have got on any team in Ireland," said Fennelly. "I remember going to watch him playing U-21 hurling and he was a cut above the rest, even at that age. He was very, very good.

"Himself and Stephen Hiney were the two really good young lads coming through in Dublin at that time. Stephen was a year younger but they both came through around the same time.

"Conal was strong, good in the air, you could play him anywhere from centre-back to centre-forward, it didn't really matter. It was just a pity from a hurling perspective that we lost him to the football.

"He was a very good footballer of course and if you look back over those 20 years he was consistently excellent for all the teams he played for."

Ex-Kilkenny player and manager Fennelly, from the same Ballyhale club as Henry Shefflin, recalled how the two players broke through around the same time.

Asked if he'd put Keaney in the same bracket as 10-time All-Ireland winner Shefflin, Fennelly nodded.

"He'd be up there with any of them. As a hurler, anyone that you would speak to would give you back glowing references about him."

Fennelly noted that things were very different for the Dublin hurlers when Keaney started out 20 years ago.

"I remember training in O'Toole Park with the minors there too," he said. "We were on one half of the pitch and the minors were on the other half. This was the week before we played Laois in the Championship. We wouldn't have had proper showers.

"I was very critical at the time that there was no capital going into Dublin hurling. Ticking a box was all that was going on. Things had to change and we worked hard with the county board to get someplace we could eat after training, decent showers, a field to work on, all the things they'd take for granted now."

Keaney won five Leinster SFC medals before returning to the county hurlers under Anthony Daly, winning the National League in 2011 and a provincial title in 2013.

The All-Ireland club football medal winner is expected to move into coaching and management.

"I would think that would be an avenue for him alright," said Fennelly. "I would have thought it would be his natural progression. He's a fella that you'd be looking to bring along with you, for kids to look up to and learn from. He would appear to have all the characteristics."

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