7 July 2022; PwC GPA Player of the Month for June in hurling, Tony Kelly of Clare, with his award at the PwC Office in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Tony Kelly Struggling To Pinpoint Where It All Went Wrong For Clare

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By PJ Browne

When the Clare hurling panel sit down ahead of next season to analyse what went wrong in their All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, Tony Kelly might then have closure on the defeat. Until then, the equations will pinball in his head.

Clare went into the last four game as favourites. They'd gone toe-to-toe with All-Ireland champions Limerick in two Munster championship games, though they didn't land the knockout punch in either. Their struggles against Wexford in the quarter-final were put down to that newish GAA cliché, 'dirty diesel'. Getting over the line in that game didn't clear the tank, and they stalled when the lights turned green against Kilkenny.

"Obviously we were below par on Saturday," says Kelly, PwC GPA Player of the Month for June in hurling.

"Hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for us - obviously a lot did go wrong. We haven't really dissected it as a team yet, we probably won't do so until we meet back up for next year, whenever that is.

"Kilkenny just seemed to be ahead of us in every aspect of the game, that bit sharper, that bit ahead of us. There were a lot of aspects that when we look back we'll be very disappointed with.

"Going long worked well for us in the early part of the Munster championship. We like to be able to mix it up in terms of being able to go short and long. At the weekend, neither thing worked well for us in the first half.

"The first half was what killed us. It was too much of a gap that we left ourselves to claw back in the second half.

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"In the second half, we came out and ran a bit more. We got a bit of momentum going. What was it, 14 points at half-time, it's just too much.

"We came back from 10 down against Galway in '18, but 14 is an insurmountable lead. We made a bit of a run, Kilkenny got a goal and that killed it off again."

2 July 2022; Mikey Butler of Kilkenny in action against Clare players Tony Kelly, centre, and Peter Duggan of Clare during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kilkenny and Clare at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by John Sheridan/Sportsfile

Prior to throw-in on Saturday, Clare lost John Conlon to injury. The converted forward had become a key part of their defence at centre-back. Paidi Fitzpatrick came into the starting team instead.

"Obviously John was a loss for us at the weekend, but you just have to adapt to it," says Kelly.

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"If you look at Limerick losing the likes of Cian Lynch and Peter Casey and being able to adapt and still perform at a very high level, that's what you expect."

Like many of the Clare team, Kelly failed to scale the heights of performance he had reached in previous games. He was held scoreless from play - scoring 0-4 from placed balls - as Kilkenny corner-back Mikey Butler never left his side.

"He's a really, really good player," says Kelly of Butler.

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"The fullback line players at the minute, they're probably as good as we've ever had if you're looking at the three boys from Limerick, same with the three lads in Kilkenny, Wexford as well. He's right up there with all those outstanding hurlers.

"[Being man-marked] It doesn’t change your approach to the game but in terms of what you’re trying to do yourself, it’s something you get used to I suppose. When I was younger it was probably more difficult to get used to it but the more experience you get of it, you try to adapt to it in the game.

"The biggest thing is that you’ve got to try to be patient with it, but obviously there are such good backs in the country at the minute. A few of our own lads are playing outstanding.

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"Not only from a marking point of view but from how the game’s developed: You’re looking at lads in the fullback line now that are out-and-out hurlers, and they’re probably touching the ball more than any other player on the field.

"I do think that for the backs around the country, we haven’t seen hurlers like them in terms of out-and-out ability on and off the ball, in a number of years."

For most of the hurling championship, Clare were its surprise package. Many predictions had their season ending in the Munster Championship. They nearly won it. Kelly believes the return of Shane O'Donnell and Peter Duggan to the panel was key.

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"I think it’s progression in terms of we’ve improved on where we were last year, definitely in terms of our performance levels," says Kelly.

"We didn’t get to a quarter-final last year, we got to one this year. We got to a Munster final this year and came close. So there’s definite progression there. We have got way better. In terms of success, it depends what you call success. I think success is when you actually win a Munster Championship or win an All-Ireland. I think that’s a successful year for any team really.

"In terms of looking back on [the good days this year], you probably don't look back when you don't win a piece of silverware. In terms of dwelling on them or looking back on them, you probably don't. You don't look back unless you've something concrete to show for your efforts really."

28 September 2013; Tony Kelly, Clare, and his team-mates celebrate with the Liam MacCarthy cup after the game. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay, Cork v Clare, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Next season will mark a decade since Clare last won the All-Ireland. Kelly, now 28, was Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year that season. With every year which passes without getting his hands on Liam MacCarthy, Kelly says the desire to win "gets stronger".

"The main thing for us is we've just got to try and get better, individually, collectively - we all have to get better in every facet of the game really," says Kelly.

"There's no point in feeling sorry for yourself or dwelling on it too much, you have to get straight back up and get back into it with your club, brush yourself down and look forward to a new inter-county season even though it's probably a good few months. That's the nature of it. We've had crushing defeats before, and you've just got to try and get better and keep going.

"Every hurler in the country is chasing [an All-Ireland hurling title] and only 33 or 34 can get at it every year. That’s the challenge that you like - you like trying to improve yourself and getting better and trying to improve yourself again and having another cut off it next year.

"That’s just the nature of hurling. It’s like a drug, you get addicted to trying to get to an All-Ireland and win an All-Ireland. We’re no different in Clare, we’re trying to get back there.

"That 2013 team, I think there’s only five or six of the lads left from that panel that was there in 2013. So it’s a completely new group but you’re basically trying to just chase that feeling. At the minute we just have to try to get better and improve and have another cut off it next year."

See Also: A Year Ago, Shane O'Donnell Thought He'd Never Play Hurling Again

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