The end of an era

Wexford adjust to life without Kelly

Dean Goodison

Kate Kelly has announced her retirement from inter-county camogie after 21 years with the Seniors
Kate Kelly has announced her retirement from inter-county camogie after 21 years with the Seniors

When Wexford met Offaly in Aughrim last June, Leinster camogie produced a better-than-expected programme that listed the players, their honours and interestingly, their ages. Most were forthcoming but Kate Kelly's bio simply said 30 something.

It was the starkest admission that one of the greats of the game was nearing the end. No longer 31, 32 or even 34, the birth cert. had, for several years, defied the eyes of spectators. The diminutive whippet weaving in and out of defences wasn't just out of the Minor ranks, it was old Kate Kelly.

Such was her quality that the St. Ibar's/Shelmalier clubwoman went on to win her ninth All Star at the end of the season. Often, with the Camogie Association, the individual awards seem to be set aside for personas rather than players, but that wasn't the case with Kelly. In 2016 she once again proved she was Wexford's best and maybe, at 36, the best in the land.

It all started for Kelly as a teenager, a precocious talent that came into a Wexford team which was close to making a breakthrough but just couldn't navigate that final hurdle. When she started, amidst a plethora of under-age medals, the thoughts of waiting over a decade for a Senior title would have been frightening.

However, it wasn't until 2007, under the tutelage of Stellah Sinnott, that Kelly and Wexford won their first All-Ireland for 32 years. Still involved with the ladies' football side at the time, Kelly was back in Croke Park two weeks later but couldn't prevent Leitrim from going home victorious. She was voted camogie 'player of the year' at the end of the season, cementing her as one of the greats of the game.

Concentrating on the small ball thereafter, Kelly proved to be a vital cog on one of the great camogie teams of all time, the Wexford side which brushed the rest aside to win three national crowns in a row from 2010 to 2012.

Kelly won All Stars in all those seasons. She ends her inter-county career with nine, including six in the last seven seasons. After 2012, as some of the star names began to retire, things took a turn for the worse for Wexford.

Despite this, Kelly was still able to maintain her own form and, if anything, she became an even more important cog in the Wexford wheel as her county failed to get back to the promised land of Croke Park in the years that followed.

The low point in her inter-county career came in 2013 when she was involved with a group of experienced players that forced new manager Martin Lynch out the exit door.

Lynch went on to win the Intermediate 'A' football championship with St. Joseph's in 2015 and the Celtic Challenge with the Wexford Under-17 hurlers a year later.

Somewhat ironically, player power has been well and truly nipped in the bud by her brother and current inter-county co-manager John Kelly. Along with Matty Flynn-O'Connor, the duo have waved goodbye to several established regulars in the past couple of seasons.

Strong personalities are important at times but they can also be detrimental to the overall team environment and the management duo have certainly ruled with an iron fist.

However, it has undoubtedly had an effect on the quality they have been able to field.

It's just five years since Wexford won their seventh All-Ireland Senior title but only three of that team remain. Karen Atkinson captained her county to glory in that title decider, while clubmates Una and Mary Leacy are the only others still involved with the Slaneysiders.

While some will question Kelly and Flynn-O'Connor's strong arm approach and others will wonder about tactics, there's no doubt that the main reason why Wexford are now struggling is because of the inactivity, particularly with regards to under-age development, of Wexford County board in the glory days.

It means that most of this current squad have been playing catch-up in their development. And while they have been catching-up others have excelled. Kilkenny, Cork and Galway are all streets ahead of Wexford now, while Offaly, Dublin, Tipperary and Limerick could all beat the Slaneysiders any given Saturday.

It's why this weekend's opening fixture against Offaly (Saturday, Innovate Wexford Park, 2.30 p.m.) is no longer the stroll in the park of previous years. In the middle of a four-match losing run, Wexford are probably marginal favourites but no more.

It is, however, a massive match. With a trip to Cork on the horizon seven days later, the three points awarded for a win could be vital in the battle to reach the quarter-finals.

Faltering Tipperary come to Wexford on July 15 before what is likely to be a massive clash away to Limerick to round out the group stages a week later.

Wexford squad: Niamh Potter (St. Ibar's/Shelmalier), Ciara Storey (Oulart-The Ballagh), Aine Lacey (St. Ibar's/Shelmalier), Sarah O'Connor (St. Martin's), Síona Nolan (Monageer-Boolavogue), Aoife Cousins (Kilmore), Mary Leacy (Oulart-The Ballagh), Emma Walsh (Glynn-Barntown), Bríd Gordon (Blackwater), Shelley Kehoe (Oulart-The Ballagh), Stacey Kehoe (Oulart-The Ballagh), Chloe Foxe (St. Martin's), Una Leacy (Oulart-The Ballagh), Linda Bolger (St. Martin's), Shauna Sinnott (Oulart-The Ballagh), Una Sinnott (Craanford-Monaseed), Amy Cardiff (St. Martin's), Ciara Donohoe (St. Ibar's/Shelmalier), Joanne Dillon (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown), Karen Atkinson (Oulart-The Ballagh).

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