WHEN THE 2019 PwC All-Star hurling nominations were announced last Wednesday one name more than any other seemed to have been sprung from nowhere.

Jack Kelly alongside Eddie Brennan after Laois’ victory in the Joe McDonagh Cup final.

Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Laois native Jack Kelly began this year as a hurling unknown. He argues that he still is.

“I’d say a lot of people are saying ‘Jack who?’Sure I have an Instagram account that has about 10 followers on it. Most of the other boys have a couple of thousand!”

Kelly’s rise to the status of All Star nominee is all the more unexpected when you consider how things had gone for him in the last two years.

“I played for the county U21s against the seniors in a match back March 2017 and did well enough. Eamonn (Kelly) brought me in to the senior squad on the back of that. I was delighted but things went downhill fairly fast for me.”

“I started against Wexford in our first championship match that summer. He only told me five minutes before throw in that I was playing. I suppose he probably thought he was doing the right thing by not telling me earlier in case I got nervous.”

Anyway it didn’t work, I was brutal. I was hauled off at half time and rightly so. I just wasn’t up to it. I remember being out of breath after about 15 minutes. I was miles off the pace.”

The summer didn’t get any better for Kelly from there either.

“I started again the next day against Carlow and improved a small bit. But the following game against Dublin I got hooked at half-time again.”

If 2017 hadn’t exactly gone according to plan, 2018 was to be worse.

I didn’t get a minute of championship hurling last year. Not one minute. I was just about scraping into the match day panel.”

Unsurprisingly, his non-involvement lead Kelly to question whether or not he belonged at inter county level and he came to a decision.

Things didn’t always go smoothly for Kelly at inter-county level.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I decided that this year that I wasn’t going to hurl with the county. I was just fed up with how things had gone for me in the previous two seasons.”

And yet here he sits in front of me, looking forward to heading to the All Star banquet next month. So what happened?

“A month or two into it Eddie (Brennan) rang me and asked me to meet him for a chat. I wouldn’t say he was chasing me hard now or anything. Sure why would he be. I hadn’t achieved anything at that level.”

“He just let me know that the door was open and that he’d like to have me involved if I changed my mind. Thank God I did.”

Kilkenny Sharp shooter Brennan’s arrival as Laois manager has prompted a serious turnabout in fortunes for Kelly. Unsurprisingly, the young Rathdowney-Errill man is effusive in his praise of him.

“He just gives you so much freedom when you’re hurling. He had no problem with me taking off on runs up the line any time I thought it was on. I really enjoyed that.”

“I suppose like most lads, I’d be a confidence player. When my confidence is up I believe I can clean anyone. But when it’s down at all I start to beat myself up and doubt myself.

But Eddie would always be bigging you up, telling you how well you were going and I responded to that.”

That said, at no stage did Kelly feel overly comfortable around his new manager. Brennan had clearly learned a few tricks of the trade from his years of service under the great Brian Cody.

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“There wasn’t one game this year where I thought ‘I’m definitely going to be starting’. I’d be in the dressing room shaking when he’s about to name the team.”

“He’d be keeping his cards close to his chest and you just wouldn’t know where you stand. All the lads would be the same, not just me. The relief then when you hear your name called out.”

Laois pulled off a shock win over Dublin in the championship this year.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The celebrations that followed each of Laois’ big victories this year is the stuff of folklore by now and Kelly smiles broadly when asked if he enjoyed it.

Those sessions were some craic. The whole county seemed to get involved too, not just the players. I have a couple of good friends who nearly lost their jobs over it. They must have missed three Monday’s in a row, not to mention the Tuesdays. I don’t know how they got away with it.”

With just a week’s break in between games, Kelly and his team mates somehow managed to make it work.

After the two days on the beer your left with just a five-day turn around to get yourself right then. So we’d run ourselves into the ground on the Tuesday night and then work on the game plan on the Thursday night.”

“But sure 90% of it is in your head. That’s what I think anyway. If you can convince yourself that the body is fine and your good to go then you will be. Just get on with it.”

“Obviously you couldn’t stay doing that on a long term basis but over those couple of weeks it seemed to work well enough.”

However unconventional the build up to their game against Tipperary may have been, it seemed to again do the trick. Despite defeat, Laois gave a more than credible performance with Kelly to the fore.

“Eddie told me he wanted me to man mark Bubbles (John O’Dwyer). I should really have been thinking ‘Oh no’, but sure I suppose things were going so well by that stage that I really fancied it.”

“I’d been wing-back all year but then when he moved in centre forward I just went in there with him and Ryan (Mullaney) came out to the side.”

Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan with Jack Kelly and Ryan Mullaney of Laois in the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final.

Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“He never stopped moving though. I remember feeling shattered after about 10 minutes. I didn’t realise how fast he was.

“But I started to get onto a few balls as the half went on and then when I got my first point I settled in well.”

Kelly finished the game with two points from his position in the half-back while holding O’Dwyer scoreless. His performance saw him take the RTE Man of the Match award and an impromptu on-field interview in front of the cameras.

I was a disaster. I must have said the word ‘savage’ about 8 times. I’d say anyone watching on tele thought ‘who’s this eejit?’

“I haven’t watched it back once since out of embarrassment but the boys give me enough stick since anyway. There still at me about it now.”

A small price to pay after an exceptional year for Kelly and co.

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