Kieran McCarthy looks at how injuries and GAA evolution have conspired against Paddy Kelly
OF all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’ – John Greenleaf Whittier.
HE’S regarded as the thinking man’s footballer, a player blessed with a brilliant brain that reads the game better than everyone else, a man hailed as ‘a genius’ by Cork selector Eoin O’Neill earlier this summer and a link man that makes football look easy – but Paddy Kelly also represents certain footballers of a dying breed.
The modern game demands a complete footballer with a mixture of skill and stamina (weighted in favour of the latter), and an engine that allows you motor all over the field at full throttle for 70 minutes, but the evolution of Gaelic football at the elite level has come at a cost.
May I put forward the evidence, your honour. Step forward, Cork and Ballincollig footballer/artist Patrick (Paddy/Pa) Kelly.
Injuries over the past few seasons have robbed Kelly of his prime years, and as the 31-year-old moves toward the latter stage of his career, more so at inter-county level, there’s a definite feeling that ‘it might have been’ oh so different if not for his hip injuries that have seen him start only four of Cork’s 16 championship games since 2013.
In those few seasons, inter-county football has evolved dramatically, led by Donegal first and now Dublin, to a stage where football ability alone isn’t enough to guarantee you a starting berth.
Footballers need so much more to their game to survive these days, to even make the cut. Forwards are expected to track back, to put in tackles and remain in top gear throughout – but that’s not Kelly’s game. You wouldn’t plough a field with a thoroughbread, would you?
He is a footballer that let’s his football do the talking, the playmaker that can make a team purr, like he does with Ballincollig, but even he acknowledged himself earlier this year – when chatting on SportsJoe’s GAA Hour football podcast – that he doesn’t enjoy Gaelic football now as much as he used to.
‘Those balls aren’t on anymore (for the corner forward) and, if they are, you’d nearly have to kick it out to the corner flag to find him,’ the 2010 All-Ireland winner said.
‘The game has changed completely. It’s getting set up, the blanket is in front of you, and it’s recycling and it’s patience and it’s no turnovers, waiting for openings and going wide. It’s just very, very different. It’s not the game we grew up with.
‘I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to, certainly not. That’s not to say that they need to change or whatever, that’s just the way it is.’
Pure players of Kelly’s ilk are a victim of Gaelic football in its present format, and you want a footballer like Kelly with the ball in his hands so he can do what he does best, not chasing his marker back into Cork’s own full-back line.
As a football fan, you’re not paying through the gate to see Kelly defend, you want to watch him influence a game, split a team with one long pass that might ordinarily – or to the average inter-county footballer – take a couple of passes. He has the vision to attack, and it reminds me of a moment in last year’s drawn Munster SFC final between Cork and Kerry in Killarney.
We’re 63 minutes in, Cork down by two, when Michael Shields runs straight at the Kerry defence, shrugging off Peter Crowley, and before Shields plays in Barry O’Driscoll, who side foots to the net for a fine goal, the Cork defender runs past the weak challenge of Colm Cooper, just outside the Kerry 21-yard line, as if the Gooch wasn’t even there.
Cooper, like Kelly, isn’t a defensive player, and when they’re out of their comfort zone, they’ll be exposed – like how Philly McMahon exposed Cooper so often defensively in the 2015 All-Ireland final.
Some players aren’t made to defend. You don’t want these natural born attackers tracking back, but Gaelic football in its current guise demands that.
What might have been, eh?
At 31, Kelly still has an inter-county future, he’s simply too good not to pick when he’s fully fit, but Peadar Healy and Co need to mastermind a plan that gets the best out of him going forward – because that’s where he’s in a league of his own.
HE’S the most influential non-scoring forward in the country, declares Cork teammate Daniel Goulding – and it’s hard to argue with that assertion.
As Denis Hurley points out, ‘he always seems to be two or three moves ahead like a chess or snooker player’, and we all know he will pull the strings for Ballincollig in Sunday’s county final against Carbery Rangers. How Ross deal with the Kelly factor will have a big bearing on the outcome, and it’s at club level that he have seen the Cloghroe National School teacher at his best this season.
The intensity at club level in Cork is a good few notches, at least, down from inter-county, so that gives Kelly the freedom and time to pull the strings.
‘Because the senior club championship is not as gung-ho as inter-county helps him, he can really peak for the club games whereas with the county the intensity is that bit higher and his body probably finds it hard to adjust – but when he’s in the groove he’s as good as anyone that’s around,’ Goulding said.
‘If you look at Dublin, who are the top team at the moment, the nearest you can equate to Paddy would be Diarmuid Connolly – they have similar traits as to how they get on the ball, they’re link men. But you are not going to get into that Dublin team unless you can track back, run around the pitch constantly and put in tackles as well – and that’s just not Pa’s game.’
Inter-county’s loss can be club football’s gain, and this championship campaign has seen Kelly lead, again.
Solid against Bishopstown and Beara, he upped the gears against Clyda, a tricky game with John Miskella on holidays but, as he does, he called the shots and Ballincollig won. He also outfoxed Castlehaven’s Damien Cahalane and Nemo’s Tomás Ó Sé; he was particularly influential in the semi-final win against Nemo. It was genius at work, the same ‘genius’ Cork selector Eoin O’Neill lauded after the Rebels defeated Longford in an All-Ireland qualifier in July. Kelly, a half-time sub that team, transformed the game, with O’Neill gushing: ‘Paddy Kelly is just a super player ... this guy’s a genius’.
Ballincollig supporters have been lucky enough to watch him up close for all these years, whether it’s his ball retention, the timing of his runs, how accurate his passing is, how he rarely loses the ball, how he always times his solos and hops perfectly to draw in his markers, how his vision and ability to link defence and attack sets him apart from the rest.
‘The biggest thing about him is that he is so intelligent on the pitch,’ Daniel Goulding pointed out.
‘He understands where the ball is going to go and where he needs to be, and if you watch him he’s nearly always giving the ball on the move. He reads the game very well and his movement is excellent.
‘Paddy just knows where I am going to run, where I want the ball and how I want it – it’s usually a ball that is to the advantage of the forward, it’s a 70/30 ball in the forward’s favour.’
His scoring return has improved in recent seasons with his club, but while Kelly still won’t score too much – ‘the most influential non-scoring forward in the country’ – his fingerprints are all over so many Ballincollig scores, and he racks up the assists in every club match.
Kelly loads the bullets and makes the target as vulnerable as possible for the sniper to pull the trigger.
And, try to get your head around this, Paddy Kelly has never won an All-Star award. Those damn injuries, those lost years and Cork’s football demise. It could and should have been oh so different ...
This Sunday, get yourself to Páirc Uí Rinn for the Cork SFC final, and if you get a chance, keep your eyes on Paddy Kelly for a few minutes instead of the game itself – watch his outstanding movement, watch the positions he takes up and how he uses the ball, and how he glides across the field. See him at his best on the club scene.
Kelly is worth the entrance fee alone.