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Kelly calling for heroes

by Christy O'Connor was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday the 8th of May 2005

Offaly's barren years have chipped away at their goalkeeper's reputation, but he reckons there's still time to bow out with a flourish. By Christy O'Connor

Padraic Kelly was dressed in his finest in the Nissan garage in Tullamore last Wednesday: black pin-stripe suit, black shirt and a bright red tie. The tie bore the brunt of the limelight in the ensemble and one customer asked Kelly if it was a nod to Liverpool's Champions League win the night before. Another suggested it would prepare him for the sight of Louth jerseys coming at him four days later. Kelly grabbed at the tie and laughed, but the thought stayed with him and he ended up wondering if it might even have been true.
Memories of Offaly's recent Leinster campaigns have placed every player on their guard, consciously and subconsciously. Offaly haven't won a game in the province since 2002 and, aside from Kildare last summer, they haven't beaten a genuine big gun in the championship since they took out the All-Ireland champions Meath in 2000. In this terrain, Louth today are a potential minefield.

It seems like an age since Kelly stood over a long-range injury-time free against Kildare in the 2000 Leinster semi-final. A point then would have pushed Offaly into a Leinster decider at just the right time in the development of that team. Kelly's kick looked to have had the distance and the accuracy but the Hogan Stand was demolished at the time and the breeze caught the ball and it drifted just wide. Kildare beat them in the replay and the road back to the big time has been paved with hardship ever since.

The last time Offaly played a championship match at Croke Park was against Dublin the following season when they blew the match by going for goals in the second half instead of taking their points. They could have been back there a year later, but the concession of soft goals in the drawn and replayed semi-final against Kildare, along with a couple of harsh refereeing decisions in extra time in the replay, saw Kildare slip past them and into another Leinster final.

For sure Offaly have been unlucky. Laois's successful Leinster campaign in 2003 turned on their drawn quarter- final against Offaly, when Kevin Fitzpatrick clearly fouled the ball by throwing it to Michael Lawlor for his late goal. Westmeath won their first Leinster title last summer, but the defining memory of their one-point win over Offaly in the first round was dominated by the image of a Brian Morley point that was clearly wide.

But narrow defeats for five years in a row suggests something more tangible than bad luck has held them back. When Tommy Lyons was in charge between 1997 and 1999 he always spoke of the 'belief, which is a birthright in Offaly'. The very fact that Offaly haven't been able to get over the line in tight matches has railed against that tradition.

'We know that the point Westmeath got last year was wide but we'd take it if we got it,' says Kelly. 'Nobody gives a s**** as long as the flag goes up. We seem to have a great book of excuses but you can't always be that unlucky. Maybe we're jinxed but there's more to it than that because we've lost so many big games by narrow margins that it isn't funny any more.

'We are close but we should be a lot closer and over the years we've lost that killer instinct. Our League record of creating 18 chances and taking nine scores, that's a record of Offaly. We've a young enough squad but it's just not good enough any more. People say we have a tough draw to get to a Leinster final but I think the draw suits us perfect. Leinster is wide open and it's set up for us. And it's about time we delivered.'

They know that it has to happen soon but they also appreciate that the heat has been turned up on them since they went on strike last September. The roots of their mini-revolution ran deep but the first shots were fired after manager Gerry Fahy tendered his resignation when the county board agreed to ratify his reappointment by just one vote.

The players compiled a list of 17 grievances to be addressed, and as a means of restoring trust and finding a resolution to the conflict, the former Offaly manager Eugene McGee was brought in as a mediator. The players took a hardline stance, which the Cork hurlers had successfully adopted two years earlier, and they prepared themselves for a fight. Their requirements were eventually met in October.

'An awful lot of personal stuff went on between players and county board officials,' says Kelly. 'Certain people fell out with us but we felt that we were bursting our b******* five nights a week and were just there to be slaughtered. The county board would criticise you in their annual report and then there would be no money spent on the team. The pressure is definitely on us this year because we have got the conditions we wanted but I see that as positive pressure. That's another reason why I would say that it's time to deliver now.'

Kevin Kilmurray was installed as manager in the autumn and their training and application is now fostered in a culture that hasn't existed in the past. Their relationship with the county board is also more conducive to success. Before they played Wexford in the qualifiers last summer, there was a huge row between the squad and the board about the board agreeing to toss for the match to be played home or away.

The players wanted a neutral venue but Offaly lost the toss and had to travel to Wexford. There was supposed to be a treatment room set aside for injured players in the hotel beforehand, but it never materialised. The hotel had been booked for a wedding and some players sought refuge in their cars, while others were caught up in traffic on the way to the match. Matty Forde went on a rampage that day, scoring 2-10, and Offaly just blew up.

'I remember thinking beforehand that this was going to be another black day,' says Kelly. 'There was no way around it. It snowballed and it got to us and we just couldn't handle it. I was poor and the bottom line was that the two goals was the difference on the day.'

Kelly took it hard afterwards and introspection hit him like Novocaine; it helped numb the pain but it didn't take away that low feeling. The family run the Roadhouse pub and shop in Mucklagh and Kelly didn't have to travel too far to descend into an abyss of self-pity.

'I really went into my shell afterwards and I went on the juice here and there,' he says. 'When there's a pub beside you and you go home from work and have four or five pints and then you have four or five more. You do get an awful lot of criticism as a keeper and there's no getting away from it when you play poorly.'
When Kelly first emerged on the scene in 1996, he was one of the best young keepers in the country; solid, confident, a diamond shot-stopper, with one of the longest kick-outs in the country. His profile slipped in tandem with Offaly's in the last five years but his performances in that time weren't laced with the same fireproof confidence with which he had made his name.

Forde's two goals last year centred on tricky high balls that Kelly didn't deal with and it further highlighted a trend that was painting itself over Kelly's ability. Ian Robertson beat him to the flick for Dublin's decisive goal in 2001 and a year later against Kildare he spilled a long delivery that Tadgh Fennin pounced on. In the replay, Dermot Earley outjumped him to steer the ball to the net.

'I honestly don't know the reason for those goals,' says Kelly. 'Maybe I've lost my edge. I can talk a good game but maybe I haven't burst myself to get there. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's time for me to move on and let one of the younger lads take over in goal because I often look back at games in the past when a guy was one-on-one with me and I'd be hoping he'd go for a goal. I was that confident.

'There are always second doubts in your head. We conceded a lot of goals in the League and whether that reflects on me is another story. I'm thinking maybe I'm not able to stop them or else I'm not able to marshal my defence the way I should be. I don't know whether that's my fault or their's but it's something for me to work on. I'll be just looking to keep a clean sheet against Louth and hope we win the game.

Goalkeeping at championship level is all about survival, but Kelly feels a lot fitter this season and he had laser surgery on his eyes before Christmas to sharpen up his vision. He didn't have poor eyesight as such, but he had difficulty spotting kick-out signals from his midfielders and the improvement has given him another edge.

Last night Kelly will have gone through his normal pre-match championship ritual. He'll have worn his Offaly togs and socks around the house all evening and before going to bed he put on his goalkeeping gloves and threw the ball against the wall in his room. He never showers or shaves on the day of a game and when he reaches the dressing room, he'll put on his Walkman and listen to some tunes.

His position is unforgiving, but once a goalkeeper agrees upon a price for playing at the highest level, he must ignore the risks of playing on the edge. Experience has taught Kelly that much, and all that's left now is to get on the stage and do his stuff.

'Maybe this year is the last hurrah for me but there's other lads thinking the same way,' he says. 'It's not about giving it a lash or doing your best any more. It's time to just go out and do it.'

At this stage, Kelly has taken all the belts and none of them has been fatal.

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