THIS IS A week eight-time Kilkenny All-Ireland winner Michael Fennelly is no stranger to, but this one is, of course, different to others.
The build-up to the biggest day of the hurling calendar.
Michael Fennelly at the unveiling of Ballygowan Activ+ as the new Official Fitness Partner of the GAA/GPA today.
Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE
The last time Brian Cody’s Cats were in the All-Ireland final, the Ballyhale man was still in the set-up. That was 2016.
A cruel ankle injury ruled the midfield general out that day however, as they were beaten by Sunday’s opponents, Tipperary, but the 2011 Hurler of the Year had lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup on several occasions prior to that.
Fennelly, who captained the Noresiders to glory in 2009, stepped away from inter-county hurling in December 2017, and hasn’t looked back since.
This week must be weird though, a slight bit of jealousy creeping in perhaps as excitement builds. “Envious of the lads being there” more than jealous, he nods.
He tells a story of meeting the team on a night out after their All-Ireland semi-final win over 2018 champions Limerick. Delighted to see them, of course, but the reunion brought mixed feelings.
“That kind of hit home a bit,” he says. “You still felt nearly part of it in terms of seeing all the lads. I hurled with them a couple of years ago and the core is nearly still there of the team. That was nearly a bit bittersweet, to be honest.
“I was kind of saying to them, ‘Look lads, there’s no point beating Limerick and losing the final, you have to go the whole way at this stage’. That wasn’t their All-Ireland in the semi-final. It’s bittersweet.
“But I’m actually happy… I had a good 12 years, my body couldn’t take any more. I think for me to go, it was taken out of my hands to a certain degree as well. Life has moved on for me with a wife and a baby and stuff, I’m very busy with that and I’m happy with where I’m at in life.”
“I’m delighted we’re back in the final,” he smiles, his attention switching back to the big one. “I didn’t think we would be, to be honest. It’s a bit surreal that we are back in the final so quickly.”
Fennelly lifting the silver in 2009.
Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
“And coming through that route of Cork and Limerick… when I heard we were playing Cork and then Limerick if we win, I was like, ‘God, this is next to impossible here in terms of our pathway.’
“But the lads have just went about their business in a serious fashion. They’ve out-performed, I suppose, and they’ve maxed out, and hopefully they can finish it off now on a massive note on Sunday.”
Excitement is definitely building in the county anyway, with a large Ballyhale contingent preparing for the Tipperary challenge in Croke Park.
It’s business as usual in the home of the All-Ireland senior club champions however, with nobody getting too carried away, Fennelly insists.
“Things just go on, everyone gets on with their own business. There’s pictures of the boys up now. There’s seven on the panel, a panel of 44, it’s a big panel. But there’s seven of our boys on it.
“It actually only hit me when I saw the pictures, like, ‘Jaysis!’ There’s a good crowd, that’s a massive chunk from one club. It’s good. Everyone is looking forward to it, really, and to rekindling that Tipp and Kilkenny rivalry. The weekend will tell a lot.”
One of the seven, of course, is his younger brother, Colin. Operating at full-forward, the revitalised 29-year-old has led the line this year, and Michael acknowledges just that.
They have been — and will be — chatting a small bit through the week, but the older of the pair is conscious to leave him to his own devices when needs be.
“From my perspective, he doesn’t want to be bothered,” the 34-year-old notes. “He wants to be getting on with work and bits and pieces, that’s the way he’ll operate.
“I wouldn’t even be bothering with tickets or who’s playing well or who isn’t. I wouldn’t want people bothering me with that when I was playing so I wouldn’t be bothering him.
“He’ll just be getting on with his normal weeks’ work and hopefully he’ll turn up Sunday and play well, fingers crossed.”
Adrian Mullen facing Limerick in the semi-final.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Another he’ll be hoping the best for is his cousin Adrian Mullen; another of the seven. The U20 star’s youthful exuberance has been huge for Kilkenny all year, as have his handsome scoring exploits.
Fennelly tells how he’s one of the younger lads in the club he’d be sharing his advice and words of wisdom with.
“I’d be chatting to him a bit, just giving him a small bit of information really. Again, he’s a good fella, keeps his feet on the ground and just gets on with business. He doesn’t get caught up in the hype or anything. He’s very firmly grounded which is good.
“You don’t have to be saying much to these lads, like. Everyone just wants to concentrate on their hurling and nothing else.”
A real family affair yet again, he adds. And a special first as a player for Mullen.
“It’s good. The fact that myself and Colin have been through it before on a number of occasions is great. It’s new for Adrian but at the same time he’s been around and he’s aware of us being in the finals, he’s gone to the finals.
“I think funny enough someone asked him lately, ‘Do you remember the finals?’ He was like, ‘I don’t remember too many of them’. I was like, ‘It’s not that long ago!’
of the team
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“When I was captain in 2009, he was nine years of age. Then I was like, ‘Okay, he was still quite young’ and that kind of hit home.”
“But yeah, we’ve been through it so it’s not a massively new experience for the family or the club or anything,” Fennelly adds.
“Whereas let’s say Limerick last year, the years since they had been in a final and then obviously to try and win one; it was a new experience for families down there more than anything.
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“For us, it’s normal, routine business to a certain degree.”
Fennelly with Cody after the 2016 Leinster final.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
The family theme he mentions runs through as he discusses his own plans for Sunday.
He’ll spend the majority of the weekend with them, but on Saturday evening he’ll be meeting friends and former team-mates as the 2009 winning team gathers in Croke Park.
“I’ll catch up with a good bit of them on Saturday, but on Sunday it’s more about family more than anything. We’ve a big family, so they’ll all be up good and early I’d say. I’m staying up for the next few days myself. But it’ll be nice that way.”
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he concludes, echoing his previous words. “It’s a bit surreal to be back there again.
“For me it’s surreal we are back there again because compared to last year, Kilkenny were probably ranked sixth or seventh because they were knocked out in the quarter-final.
“The likes of Clare and Galway had a savage year last year, Limerick were very strong. Tipperary, obviously had a few injuries and were knocked out early, but still have a good core.”
Michael Fennelly was at hand as Ballygowan Activ+ powered up as the new Official Fitness Partner of GAA/GPA
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