A class act on and off the field, the moment that Clare U-21 captain Tony Kelly will wring most enjoyment from on Saturday is the journey from the dressing room to the turf of Semple Stadium.
If Clare win the 51st final at this grade, Kelly will become the 47th captain to lead his county to glory. The 2013 hurler of the year has been central to some of Clare’s greatest moments at senior, U-21 and minor but it’s those tension-laden steps before entering the cauldron that the Ballyea hurler lives for.
“For a player, it’s coming out, down the tunnel. You know the county is behind you and they’re willing you on to win. As a player that’s maybe the best part of the day. If you can then deliver a performance and go on and win it, all the better,” he reflected.
All-Ireland final evening incorporates parades and pre-match pageantry, which adds to the atmosphere, but can drag on a bit for players.
“A lot of players would like to get off the bus, get onto the field and play. But I suppose there’s a few bits and pieces before the ball is thrown in, that you have to get out of the way. But we’re well used to it and that won’t take from us performing in any way. You have to enjoy those things because they don’t come around often,” the Clare captain has learned.
Clare have beaten Limerick, Tipperary, Cork and Antrim. Beat Wexford and they’ll have secured a place hurling history. Kelly isn’t thinking about that though. The plan up to now has been to take each game, hour by hour.
“Since we started against Limerick in the first round, it was just game by game. In the last two years, we’ve been in a similar situation. We know what to expect from ourselves and what to do. We’ll be doing everything similar to what we have done over the last two years to prepare for Wexford.We’ll be trying to do the right things and get the best performance out of ourselves as we can,” he said.
“The management team have it drilled into us all year that when we go out to play, we just want to get the best performance out of ourselves. If we get that and if it’s good enough to win, it’s good enough to win. That’s all we focus on. If we give our best and work hard, more often than not that’s the thing that wins you matches,” the third year LIT Business Studies student added.
He expects both counties to be backed by thousands of their county men, women and children.
“There will be a big crowd there from both sides. Wexford are good followers, as are Clare. As a player, that’s something you look forward to, going out playing in an All-Ireland final in front of big crowds. That’s maybe something that won’t faze us, as we’re used to it and hopefully we’ll draw from the experiences of last year and the year before to help us,” he said.
Another factor is the closeness this panel has built up hurling with Clare and stretching back to their secondary school days.
“There’s a hefty amount of us involved since the 2010 or 2011 minor teams. If you go through it, half of us went to St Flannan’s and the other half went to St Caimin’s, so we all know each other for a good four or five years. We know each other a bit too well maybe but you can draw on that when the chips are down. You need to trust the lad beside you and vice versa. You know that he has your back and that only bodes well for the team,” Clare’s midfield captain observed.
Although Tony Kelly says that the moments before exploding on to the pitch are ones that resonate with him, that feeling will be equalled, at least, if he gets his hands on the Rock of Cashel Trophy, becoming the fourth Clare and second Ballyea man to lead his team to All-Ireland U-21 glory.