THERE’S not much that Michael Fennelly hasn’t seen when it comes to hurling, but even he’s on new ground when it comes to an All-Ireland final replay.
“It’s a strange situation to be facing into,” he said. “We haven’t been here before.
“It’s strange to still be with the county team when things like the weather has changed,” the Shamrocks man continued. “It’s getting colder, the evenings are a bit darker - even the conditions of the field have changed.
“Yeah, it’s an unusual position we’re in, but we have to get our heads round it,” he added. “We’re still in an All-Ireland final. It would be very nice to win the replay.”
Rather than return to a fanfare, Fennelly and his colleagues came home to a quiet Kilkenny following the 2-13 to 0-19 draw with Galway on September 9. The trip home was quicker than usual - following a meal in Dublin the team were back in their own beds by Sunday night, but not before getting a chance to review the game.
“After the match, when we went back to the CityWest Hotel we caught the highlights on TV,” he said. “It showed the majority of the match so we got our analysis in pretty quickly! It was hard enough at times to watch it, but again we were happy enough to get the draw.
“The week after the game was very tough,” added the 2011 Hurler of the Year. “There was a bit of disappointment in the air, but I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like had we lost. To lose by a point in the last second would have been a killer - I’d say there would have been a few sleepless nights for a few weeks had that been the case.
I think both teams are pretty happy to get another crack at it.”
The players are itching to get back to Croker, with Fennelly admitting that many are determined to raise their game.
“I think things might have been a bit different if we’d given a good performance and still drew,” he said. “The fact that so many players didn’t play up to scratch meant a lot of us were disappointed with our own performances. I think that had a lot to do with it. If you’d had a cracking game and still drew, then fair enough - but there was a fair bit of disappointment there.
“I wasn’t happy with my own performance,” he admitted. “I was very down compared to how I should have felt, but hopefully I can rectify that in the replay and put in a better performance - that’s the key. If every player looks after their own performance then hopefully the result will look after itself.
“That’s not to say that I think we should have won the game though,” he added. “Galway were there or thereabouts for the whole game, especially near the end. They were well ahead of us at half-time too. Both teams got ahead at different stages - it was point for point at times there. A draw was a fair result.”
With the players given a few days off training after the draw, Fennelly used the time to clear his head and regain his focus for the replay.
“On the Monday after the game you think about what needs to be done and what went wrong,”. I took a few days off work to relax, went to my girlfriend’s family home in Cork to clear the head.
“That was a key thing for me, rather than being in work in Kilkenny where you’d be talking about the game more,” he said. “I took the chance to go away, clear the head and freshen up for Thursday.”
The trip was also made without a hurley. It was proper time off.
“I left the gear at home, just packed a few clothes,” he said. “For two or three days after a big game like that your body is going to be sore. You’re not going to be doing much - just pool work to recover.”
The chance to take a break was a welcome one, especially after a game where both sides made strong dashes to claim the MacCarthy Cup late on.
“The last five minutes were tit-for-tat,” Fennelly recalled. “We had a goal opportunity, then got a point from the penalty. At that stage we began to think we were close, that we were nearly there, but then the ball went straight back up the field and they got a few points. Joe (Canning) missed a free he would normally have scored, but
“I don’t think any stage that we had it,” he said. “When we went a point ahead they were able to come back and draw. We were getting ahead in the closing stages, but Galway could easily have snuck over a point in the last minute.”
The game began in an unusual manner for Kilkenny, who seemed nervous at the throw-in.
“That (feeling) probably came from the Leinster final,” said Fennelly. “We got a big hammering that day - Galway came out of the blocks so fast that we couldn’t get near the ball for 20/25 minutes. Maybe lads were a bit over-anxious to get on the ball; that can happen to any team. If you get that first touch in it can help you, if it doesn’t come for a few minutes you can get a bit frustrated. It’s a matter of staying calm, something I think we did as the match wore on.”
Staying calm is a quality in itself, especially as the intensity built in the pressure-cooker that is Croker. Fennelly gave a fascinating insight into what it feels like to be one of the 30 players on the field when that drama is at full volume.
“It’s hard to put into words fully what Croke Park is like for a final,” he said. “With the crowd there it’s like a colosseum, the noise is deafening!
“It’s very exciting to be playing in front of more than 80,000 people - it should bring you on,” he said. “Things are a little more relaxed at the semi-final stage, where you might have 40 or 50,000 people, but in the final when teams like Galway get on top and the crowd is behind them it can be worth a point or two to a side. It can help you, drive you on and give you that extra five/10 minutes in your performance levels that you didn’t think you had.
“The Kilkenny supporters were great, cheering us on when we were four or five points down and they got behind us straightaway,” he added. “Any time we got a point it was greeted like a goal by the fans. The support we get is one of the strengths of the GAA, along with how the counties can have that good-hearted banter and feeling between them.”
One of the scores he mentioned was Henry Shefflin’s point which levelled the game in the 51st minute. The score was greeted with a deafening roar which the players fed off, Fennelly admitted.
“It gives you a chill - but it’s a nice feeling when you hear the roar after your team scores,” he said. “It’s different when it goes the other way, but that’s part and parcel of the All-Ireland experience!”
Sunday will see the Cats take on Galway for the fifth time this season, but rather than study the opposition Fennelly feels he and his team-mates have to concentrate on their own game.
“We have to worry about ourselves first and foremost - I think we might have been worrying about Galway too much,” he said. “Getting ourselves right is the key. We have to get our performance levels up.
“A lot of our players didn’t perform as well as they could have in the draw,” he finished. “We need to increase that ratio for Sunday’s game.”