Goodbye to the greatest midfielder of all time?-Michael Fennelly


RTE hurling analyst Michael Duignan isn’t usually a man given for hyperbole, but after the Offaly man had seen Kilkenny defeat Limerick in the All-Ireland qualifiers this year, he made an exception. Speaking on the second Captains podcast, he reflected on a stuttering Kilkenny performance, in keeping with their whole year. They only barely managed to overcome the treaty men, and maybe they shouldn’t have, but one man ensured they did…

“I think Michael Fennelly epitomized Kilkenny at the moment, they’re dying but they’re not going to die without a fight. To see his performance, back for the first time since the All-Ireland semi-final and what a performance he gave on Saturday, and he’s so crucial, how one man can be so important to a team, we had a chat about it afterwards, myself and Daithi Regan on Saturday evening, is he the best midfielder of all time? I think he’s up there. I think he’s an absolutely incredible player”

The best midfielder of all time? Well, it’s impossible to judge anything like that obviously, unless you’re the Bionic man, but having been a noted hurler for more than a decade and a half, and a respected pundit for even longer, at the very least, Duignan’s opinion holds some merit. Sometimes statistics and numbers don’t do justice to a player’s career. But if you’re Michael Fennelly they don’t necessarily do a disservice. 8 All Ireland senior medals, 3 club All-Ireland senior medals, 6 county titles, 3 All-Stars, 1 hurler of the year. Well then people, what do you think of that?

Of course the whole notion of being the greatest midfielder of all time is a bit of a misnomer. Even for someone who has only seen hurling in the last 30 years, there are the likes of Colin Lynch, Ciaran Carey and David Burke who could easily pop into the conversation, but the most accurate comparison that could be made for the type of hurler Fennelly was, is probably one from his own club.

Up until the current decade, ask a Kilkenny man in the 40-70 year age range who was the best midfielder they ever saw and it was pretty much a given, that the name Frank Cummins would be uttered. Cummins seemed to define the perfect midfielder of the past. A colossus who transferred from his own club in Knocktopher in the early 1970’s to Blackrock of Cork, Cummins had everything: size, strength, skill, the engine. But ask the same question now and the same people may not be so sure of an answer. Because the Ballyhale man that came after, was just as good if not better.

It didn’t come easy though. In the heyday of the Cody era, Fennelly highlighted the astonishing strength of depth that team had. It was an anomaly, that in the late 00’s it was harder to break onto the Kilkenny starting 15, than it was to win an All-Ireland medal with them. He had to compete with the likes of Derek Lyng, Cha Fitzpatrick and Michael Rice, multiple all stars all,  just to get his place in the side. And in only his second full season as a starter, 2011, he was so ready for the inter-county challenge, he ended up as hurler of the year.

If 2011 was Fennelly’s annus mirabalis, then it certainly wasn’t the only one. It’s amazing to think that he was 5 years on the Kilkenny panel before he became a regular. Or that he won an All-Ireland as captain (2009) without starting the final. But if his Kilkenny days were slow to start, they picked up speed quickly.

Fennelly was a newer breed of hurler. The man he effectively replaced in the Kilkenny team, his own clubmate James “Cha” Fitzpatrick, was a different type of midfielder. With Cha, it was all wrists. He didn’t move his body any more during the game, than he had to. With Michael, there was immense power and endurance, but there was plenty of guile in those wrists too.

But if Fennelly’s strength became his trademark, that wasn’t always necessarily the case. If anything, early on in his inter-county life, the worry might have been he wasn’t strong enough to make it. Well he overcame that fear and then some.

And it wasn’t just by accident either, the improvement was all deliberate. Fennelly dedicated both his working, and his sporting life, to becoming a better hurler. In his earlier days, he worked in the unromantic surroundings of Ulster Bank, before leaving that job to complete a master of science in sports performance in the University of Limerick, and he now works as a lecturer in Sports science in LIT.

All that investment in knowledge about sporting performance paid off. Think back of some of the most memorable Kilkenny games of the past decade and Fennelly was often at the heart of them. He was the man who got that crucial goal before half time in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Tipperary, with one of his trademark lung bursting runs. He got a similar double against the same opposition in the 2013 League final at Nowlan Park. When the Cats were most vulnerable in the 2015 final against Galway, he, along with TJ Reid, was the one who dragged them through the storm. And in that classic 2016 semi-final replay against Waterford, he was again a powerhouse from the middle, before succumbing to all too familiar injury in the second half.

That Achilles problem robbed him of game time for most of this year and in truth, his career has been on borrowed time for a long while. He struggled with ankle injuries in 2012 and 2013 and the back problems that had plagued him since the early part of this decade never fully went away. In an interview with the Irish examiner in 2015 he spoke in detail of how much the problems affected him in daily life.

“Your back is everything and if it is not right — if you can’t do daily functions and if you had kids in the future and you can’t play with them, that’s a different scenario. It’s the lower back, when that triggers off — and it is hard to know what actually happens with it — daily functions like bending down to pick up stuff, I am in trouble with that. Even walking; I can’t jog”

All of this knowledge made an imminent retirement somewhat inevitable. But if Kilkenny fans knew this day was coming, it won’t necessarily make the adjustment to the fact any easier.

And so he’s added to the list. Since Kilkenny’s All-Ireland victory in 2014 just look at the names that have retired: David Herity, Kieran Joyce, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Eoin Larkin, Richie Power, Henry Shefflin, Taggy Fogarty. All massive losses to the side, and the latest one is just as big as blow, if not bigger than any of the others. How will Cody and Kilkenny cope? Who knows. But if they’ve done it before, then why not again?


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