Never has there been a year when so many high-profile players have hung up their boots and fitting tributes must be paid to some of the greatest players to ever grace hurling fields for club and county. Kilkenny have had a max exodus as the incredible records that all their players boast continue to shock all hurling followers.
The Cats are grabbing most of the headlines but proper recognition must be given to the man from Mullinahone in Tipperary, Eoin Kelly. Kelly was one of the country’s best hurlers for well over a decade. His medal collection may not be as impressive as those men from Kilkenny but that should not take away from Kelly’s quality and what he achieved in the game of hurling.
From a very young age, people were talking-up Eoin Kelly as hurling’s next special talent. Despite being from Tipperary, he attended one of Ireland’s most famous hurling schools, St.Kieran’s College in Kilkenny and his profile grew from there.
He followed names like Henry Shefflin, DJ Carey and Eddie Keher through the ranks and continued to build his reputation. He spent time on Tipperary underage teams as a forward and a goalkeeper.
His debut for Tipperary occurred in 2000 while Kelly was still a minor. He sat on the bench for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway wearing number sixteen; the sub goalkeepers jersey.
As Tipperary trailed going into the final minutes, an outfield jersey was found for Kelly as he was thrown in at the deep end. He did manage to score a point but Tipperary lost the game to Galway. While it may have been a bad day, few people knew that it was the beginning of the career for one of their greatest ever players.
2001 was the year when Eoin Kelly burst onto the scene. In his first year as an adult hurler he was one of Tipperary’s main forwards as they won their first All-Ireland in ten years. That was the year when we saw Kelly’s very accurate free taking for the first time. He may not have set the world alight from play but nonetheless it was a very good debut season.
It was from 2002 onwards that we started to see the real class of Eoin Kelly. Páirc Uí Chaoímh witnessed some of Kelly’s best hurling. During that year, he gave two masterclass displays against Clare and Limerick to send Tipp into the Munster final. His thunderbolt of a goal against Clare was one of his first great goals and there were many more to follow.
The thing that may prevent some people from giving Kelly the credit he deserves is the fact that he played on a lot of poor Tipperary teams.
Kelly’s very best form came between 2002 and 2007 when he gave some of the best individual performances ever seen. His scoring record was phenomenal and this should take into account that he did not play as many games as others. Another factor that should be considered is that a lot of his scores came from play.
His 2-8 haul against Waterford in 2004 was one of the best individual displays seen in the Munster Championship. Waterford had scored two early goals from Dan Shanahan and raced into an early lead until Kelly single handily dragged Tipp back into the game.
A personal tally of 2-4 from play nearly pulled an average Tipperay side into a Munster final, but they lost to a last minute goal. This was like so many of Kelly’s best performances; happening in a season when Tipperary achieved very little.
Kelly had an excellent year in 2005 but 2006 was probably Kelly’s best year of all. His form and performances that year were nothing short of exceptional.
He began with a 0-14 tally as Tipp defeated Limerick in Thurles as Kelly outdid himself in terms of a single individual performance. 0-9 out of his final tally came from open play when Kelly gave a masterclass of how to operate as an inside forward.
He followed this up with another 2-9 haul in the Munster semi-final with Waterford. Yet again the rest of the Premier side failed to match the standard set by their marquee forward. He carried the Tipperary hurling side for a long time. Some of his performances were right of the highest order but very few took place during the business end of seasons. This was certainly no fault of Eoin Kelly.
Jokers would say that this was the reason for the injury problems that Kelly had towards the end of his career. Kelly suffered from back problems in later years and a lot of people would put this down to the way that Kelly was forced to carry the whole of Tipperary hurling on his back. He was a player that was in danger of failing to receive the recognition warranted but this started to turn in 2008.
Liam Sheedy took over Tipperary and this coupled with the influx of new young talent meant that the Premier men’s fortunes would start to improve. Tipp won four Munster titles in five years with Kelly captaining the side to three of them and most notably, Kelly was the man to walk the steps of the Hogan Stand and lift the Liam McCarthy Cup as Tipperary won the All-Ireland title in 2010.
Kelly was no longer the only player capable of scoring in the Tipperary attack as the likes of Lar Corbett, Noel McGrath and John O’Brien began to assist the man who had pretty much been the sole threat up front for years. During these later years, his leadership and experience were essential as Tipperary began to win silverware and contend for honours in September.
The latter years were the most successful for Eoin Kelly in terms of honours and team achievements but his prime years occurred before 2009. The 2009 All-Ireland final was the best full game performance in his swansong years. His moments of class continued to be on show. His two goals scored against Cork in 2009 and 2011 were the two standout moments to illustrate that his class was permanent.
His final years saw him used as an impact sub as time and miles on the clock caught up with him. He finally announced his retirement this year and the tributes should continue to come in droves.
Kelly was a class act in every sense of the word. His skill levels, his scoring records and the way he carried himself were testimony to the man himself. As previously stated, Kelly’s best years occurred while Tipperary were going through a bad spell. In certain ways, this should lead to more plaudits.
Cynics will compare the medal records of Kelly and the Kilkenny players of his generation but Kelly was in teams of far lesser ability and sides that were far less dominant. The over-the-shoulder shot was his trademark and it is an image that will stick in the heads of hurling followers for years to come.
He was the best inside-forward of his generation. Nobody could match his skill levels and his ability to score from nothing. He could win his own ball despite not being the biggest presence and carried a team like no other has before. It was fitting that he was the man to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2010 and he owes nothing to Tipp or hurling in general.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena