Evan Kelly on his Segway
The suggestion was that he was a manager by accident, but there was a wry smile and warm chuckle when the admission was made: “I suppose I talked myself into the job, really.”
Thomastown GAA club never had any reservations. And after the season just finished produced a rich run of 12 wins, one defeat, one draw and a double of league and championship successes at Roinn B minor hurling level, there was plenty to smile and be happy about.
A chirpy Evan Kelly certainly added something different to the GAA landscape. He was the first ‘Segway-powered’ manager on the scene - definitely in Kilkenny, if not on a national scale.
A serious accident suffered while on an extended holiday in Australia in 2007 has left him with difficulty walking, but with his trusty Segway - a two-wheeled, self balancing personal transporter - Evan is possibly the fastest manager running a sideline in the country now.
“I don’t like the wheelchair. I don’t like the mobility scooter. I use the Segway for practical purposes,” the 34-year-old father of one explained.
“If I am on the line at a match and I need to get to the toilet I use the Segway. Otherwise it would take me ages to get across the field.
“With the Segway it is boom, boom.”
He started using a Segway about five years ago after he saw one while on holidays in Portugal. When he came home he explored the possibility of getting one, and he did.
He has managed under-age soccer teams for Thomastown United in the past, but this season Evan Kelly the GAA manager strode the lines in Grennan, Bennettsbridge, Danesfort, Ballyhale, Lisdowney, Gowran, Clara, St John’s Park and elsewhere before making his debut on the Nowlan Park pitch on county minor hurling final day.
Sunday, November 4 was a red letter day for the club. Thomastown won their first minor hurling championship title since they captured the Roinn A crown way back in 1981.
Evan Kelly and his management team including his best friend, Darragh McGarry (son of former Kilkenny star, James, who doubles as team trainer), Thomas O’Hanrahan, Dermot Lanigan and Liam O’Mahony rounded off the double with the 24-man squad the weekend before last when beating Danesfort in the league decider.
Officials up and down the county are welcoming. ‘Jaysus, that’s a right yoke’ is a common refrain from GAA people at grounds.
How he got to manage the team!
Evan admitted to being an enthusiastic follower of sport. He was at the Euros in France for three weeks in 2016, part of a group of five who travelled around in a camper van.
He is a season ticket holder at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, but so far this season he missed all the matches there because of his commitment to hurling.
He attends a lot of matches with Darragh McGarry. There is never a shortage of opinion, he smiled.
So, after cutting his teeth with the under-16 to 19 squads with Thomastown United some time back, he took the plunge in Gaelic games.
Two years ago the duo decided to stop being hurlers on the ditch. They got involved with the Thomastown under-16 hurling team.
They asked Liam O’Mahony for his support, to sort of “keep an eye on us and help guide us”. Thomas O’Hanrahan and Dermot Lanigan joined the ranks too. Evan’s 11-year-year old daughter, Abbie, the apple of his eye, became his personal assistant, the unofficial kitwoman if you like.
Things didn’t take fire at under-16 level. Still the officials felt there was something in the group. They opted to move up to the minor grade with the squad this year.
“Because of my accident I have been involved with a lot of positive-minded people,” Evan said when he uncorked the thinking. “I love inspirational people. I am not trying to be one of those. I am trying to bring what I have to the table.
“No one in the club asked me how I was going to manage when I was appointed. Once I put my name forward, no one questioned it. The chairman Ger Walsh and the committee went with it.”
Players were drilled to be positive, to take responsibility. Their credo was ‘A Band of Brothers, bleeding blue’, a chorus borrowed from the successful Thomastown camogie squad.
Inspiration? Camogie player, Jenny Reddy played in the county final against Piltown with a broken finger.
“That was mentioned in our dressing-room coming up to the county final,” Evan revealed. “She just got on with it. That was mental strength.
“We wanted the lads to forget about small thing. We tried to make everything local and relevant.”
Former Kilkenny panelist, Jonjo Farrell, another proud Thomastown man, was referenced.
“Winning was unbelievable,” Evan suggested. “We didn’t realise how much it meant to people until afterwards.”
The first outing in the championship was a big learning experience. They led Galmoy/Windgap by nine points at half-time. They were blessed to get a draw in the end.
“That was the most valuable lesson of the year,” the manager felt.
“That day we prepared for a hurling game. After that we always prepared for a battle.”
It was September 28, 2007. The sun was high in the sky over idyllic Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world.
Evan had taken a three month break from his job as an electrician and was touring Australia with friends. There could have been up to 100 people racing up and down the dunes and jumping into the sea.
He did it maybe 10 times, and then…..
Evan recalled: “It was like an electric shock, like the sensation you get when you touch an electric fence.”
He broke his neck. He was paralysed from the chest down; power gone from his arms and all parts of his body. His injury was later confirmed as a C6 Incomplete spinal cord injury, which is one that affects the lower end of the cord near the base of the neck.
His friends spotted him lying in the water and reacted. A doctor from Canada, who had worked in a spinal injury unit, happened to be walking by.
The doctor more or less took charge, supervised the lift from the water to guard against any further damage. Evan could move his neck, but the doctor packed the sand up around his shoulders and head to curtail even that slight movement.
He was fully conscious all the time. Eventually he was airlifted to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, which has all major medical and surgical specialities onsite.
He was operated on there. When he woke after surgery, one of the first people he laid eyes on was Caroline Lanigan, a nurse, a neighbour from Thomastown, who is still living in Australia.
One day during his stay in Brisbane he had 13 people from Thomastown around his hospital bed, all of whom were visiting Australia.
Evan spent four weeks in the Princess Alexandra. Nine months followed in the Rehabilitation Centre in Dunlaoire.
The proud people of Thomastown weren’t found wanting. They raised a lot of money, in the region of €30,000, which kept Evan in physio for four or five years.
“It was amazing because I wouldn’t have known most of them,” Evan recalled. “My friends have been amazing.
“ I was never allowed mope around and do nothing. Even when I was coming home from hospital at weekends, they made me do things. They still do.”
When he was discharged from hospital in Dunlaoire he took two weeks off. Then, confined to a wheelchair, he started working with the ESB in Waterford processing invoices and so on.
That work wasn’t for him. Subsequently he worked with Leader in Kilkenny, who, he insisted, have been exceptional in helping and supporting him. These times he works in Property Management.
The work on dragging as much as possible from his injured body continues. He swims and goes to the gym five or six times a week.
How far more can you go we wondered?
“I don’t know,” he shot in reply. “I could be maxed out, I don’t know. I thought I was maxed up, but I have been working with Andy Kavanagh, a strength and conditioning coach, recently and I have made progress.”
The only limitations he sees are the limitations he places on himself.
“I just want to get on with my life. I have a really good life. I will drive my recovery as far as I can.”
“I use my freedom; the independence the Segway gives,” he explained as he spoke about driving into the City after our chat. “I don’t have to depend on anyone. I couldn’t get around the city in a wheelchair.”
And as for sport, he really enjoyed the trench warfare, the work from the technical area this season. He learned a lot, lived a lot with Darragh, his fellow selectors and the players.
Helping to put the name of Thomastown in lights was a thrill, a big, big thrill.
Evan is son of Martin and May Kelly from Thomastown. He has two sisters, Rebecca and Joanne.
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.