Johnny Kelly - The man with the Midas touch
By John Harrington
Success follows Johnny Kelly around too much for it to be a coincidence.
The Portumna native first made a name for himself with his home club when was part of Jimmy Heverin’s management team in the All-Ireland winning years of 2006 and 2008.
Kelly then took charge of the team himself and won county titles in 2008 and 2009 as well as the 2009 All-Ireland Club Championship.
He coached Tipperary club Kildangan to the North Tipp title in 2013 and then in 2015 was involved in three different championship winning teams.
He was manager of the Coolderry side that won the Offaly senior hurling championship, a selector with the All-Ireland winning Galway Intermediate hurlers, and coached the Abbeyknockmoy team that won the Galway Intermediate Club Championship.
On Sunday, he’ll hope to leave his fingerprints on another major piece of silverware as manager to the Borris-Ileigh hurling team vying to dethrone Thurles Sarsfields in the Tipperary County Senior Final.
Borris-Ileigh last contested a Final in 1988, so Kelly has clearly made a major impact since taking charge of the team this year, though he’s keen the players should take most of the credit.
“I say it a lot and I really mean this, but it really is down to the players,” Kelly told GAA.ie. “You can go into a place and you can bring what you bring to the club, but you need a commitment and you need everyone to put it in.
“Club hurling now is a serious commitment. It's a really a life-style choice and you've got to put in huge effort if you want to get the rewards.
“Even the fitness levels now that are associated with club players is greater now than it ever has been. I think Borris-Ileigh have bought into that mindset and it's gotten them here.
“Their level of fitness has certainly come up. We're playing reasonable hurling. It's got us to where we are. We set up in a particular way and we've done a lot of work on the technical side of things as well.
“We haven't anything won though, I'm very conscious of that fact. Okay, they're north champions and have a good run of form, but all of that will count for nothing on Sunday if we don't produce.”
The mindset that Kelly speaks about is probably perfectly exemplified by team-captain, Paddy Stapleton.
His departure from the Tipperary panel after the 2016 All-Ireland Final mean he was able to give his total commitment to his club throughout the year, and Kelly believes that has been a key ingredient in the team’s run to Sunday’s County Final.
“Tipperary's loss was Borris-Ileigh's gain in the respect that he was at all club training sessions,” says Kelly. “Paddy is a brilliant leader, an obvious candidate for captain at the start of the year.
“He's an extension of the management really. He understands what it takes and he leaves no stone unturned in his own preparation and that rubs off on the rest of the guys.
“You can see his professionalism comes out and it really rubs off on the rest of the guys and they can see what it takes.
“When you have someone of that talent and mindset it pushes the whole group forward.”
Borris-Ileigh have always produced some quality individual players over the years, but as a collective they sometimes flattered to deceive.
This year they’re very much a team in the truest sense of the word, and that has allowed their best players to simply hurl their own game rather than spread themselves too thin.
County stars Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack have been superb at centre-back and midfield respectively, while the Kenny brothers Conor and Niall have shot the lights out in attack.
Their return to their native parish having spent most of their childhood and teenage years living in Celbridge, Kildare, has been a massive boon to the club.
Conor has really matured as a hurler this year and will surely earn a recall to the Tipperary panel in 2018 having been a part of it from 2014 to 2016, while younger brother Niall has put on a few kilos of muscle to grow into a serious physical specimen and may be knocking on the Tipperary door himself in the very near future.
Their combination of size, strength, and finishing power can be devastating, and gives Borris-Ileigh a fighting chance in Sunday’s Final.
“They're two very strong guys,” says Kelly. “Philip their dad is with us as a selector and the Kennys are steeped in Borris-Ileigh history down through the years.
“The two guys are very strong, very, very athletic guys. Both of them are well able to take a score. Conor has been around Tipp panels for a number of years, but this year he’s really taken off.
“He more than anyone else has benefited from the training that we've undergone this year and you can see it in the scores that he's getting and taking. He's been fairly prolific over the last number of games and hopefully that will continue again.”
Thurles Sarsfields are gunning for four county titles in a row and boast a galaxy of current and former inter-county stars in their ranks like Padraic Maher, Ronan Maher, Michael Cahill, Aidan McCormack, Billy McCarthy, Denis Maher, and Lar Corbett.
They’re warm favourites for a very good reason, but Borris-Ileigh certainly won’t be bowing down to them.
“We’re really looking forward to the weekend,” says Kelly. “No team is unbeatable really. Not at all.
“Hurling is a game that, as we all know, simple things can go your way and a little bit of luck and a bounce of a ball on the day can change the direction of a game and the scoreline you end up with.
“But you'd have to consider that they're going for four in a row. Just the experience of that alone and in Finals, they're not going to be overawed by County Final day, they'll walk into that as if they're walking down the park.
“I know that maybe sounds unprofessional, but not at all. I believe they're a seriously professional outfit.
“Just that experience of the day, it's a big bonus to them. No matter how we approach it in Borris-Ileigh, the guys will not have had that.
“Just to get over that and manage that on the day will be the big thing. Just so we can get there and compete. We're very conscious of the fact that Thurles would have really blitzed other teams in the past early on and that's something we'd hope wouldn't happen.
“It's very easy to say we have to guard against that, but when you're on the field we've got to make sure we don't let them get a run on us.
“And from there we can maybe stay with them for the rest of the day.”