IN FOCUS: Tieran Kelly – light at the end of the tunnel

TIERNAN Kelly helped his club Clann Éireann end a 58-year wait for a championship title in 2021 and it looked like his career was about to really take off.

But for two years now, a large proportion of his time has been spent on the sidelines, a six-month ban included for an incident arising from the 2022 All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Galway, and on the treatment table and ‘TK’ hasn’t really had the impact on the inter-county scene that many had predicted.

A Hogan Cup winner with St Ronan’s, Lurgan in 2018, Kelly represented Armagh at all age levels before breaking into Kieran McGeeney’s senior side, where he hit the net against Antrim on his Ulster Championship debut in 2021.

Kelly missed Armagh’s run to the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2022 with a blood-clot issue, having played all their league games, while in 2023, a collapsed lung kept him out of another Croke Park date and an Ulster final, again after featuring in all their Division One matches.

The talent’s there, as is the trust of the manager. The luck just clearly isn’t.

“It’s good to get back in there and training again after an injury last year,” said Kelly, looking ahead to next season.

“I’ve got a full preseason under me and it’s five or six weeks to the league so it’s just about trying to keep the head down and pushing on and training hard.

“It’s really random, I’ve never really had any injuries up until the last two years and they’re not hamstrings or calves, they’re really random injuries coming out of nowhere. But you have to play with the hand you’re dealt and I’m back now and recovered.

“I got a good club championship behind me and a decent preseason there as well so hopefully I’ll stay on the pitch the full year and keep adding to it.

“I like to think of myself as a positive person and the good thing was, I was able to run and do a bit of non-contact stuff. I was still doing a bit in the gym, so I was still training with the lads and still coming down.

“It was just that I was obviously trying to fill that void of not actually playing full, contact football. You’re here but you’re not available for selection and that’s probably the hardest thing but it’s one of those things.

“You just have to keep your head down and keep trying to drive the other boys on and try to be a part of it as much as you can.”

Kelly missed out on perhaps the two biggest years that Armagh have had in a long time. They reached back-to-back All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time since 2006 and ended their 15-year famine for an Ulster final appearance.

“I’m still a part of them (the big days) as part of the squad but you want to be playing, you want to be putting the jersey on,” added the Clann Éireann attacker. “Whether you’re on the 26 or you’re on the 15, you want to contribute in any way you can.

“But hopefully this year I’ll keep fit and hopefully there’s more of those days to come. It kind of makes you appreciate the big days more when you get a good few years with no injuries there, you just take it for granted.

“But when you do get one or two niggles and it keeps you out for a couple of weeks here or there or even a couple of months, it makes you appreciate it when you come back, and it makes you keep the head down and appreciate the big days and appreciate the matches.

“The McKenna Cup is a good preseason tournament and no matter how good of a preseason you do, the first few games, you’re always blowing so it’s good to get those games under the belt before going into the league. We have two big home games to start (the league, against Louth and Meath) and then we’re away to Kildare and home to Donegal so that’s four massive games to start with. You want to get off to a good start so you’re not looking points down the line.”

Kelly isn’t on his own in terms of returning from injury. The likes of Oisin O’Neill, Niall Grimley, Mark Shields and Ciaron O’Hanlon all missed out last year and with that calibre of player returning, earning a starting jersey is going to be that little bit tougher.

“We do have a really good squad and sometimes you forget about the boys that aren’t available. This year, we have a good 40-odd boys there and a few of the others who are trialling, some of them are going to come in and add things to it.

“There are boys looking to put their hands up, even young boys like Darragh McMullen and Joe Sheridan, everyone is pushing.

“Everyone is here to be part of Armagh, but everyone wants to play. There’s only 15 starting places and 26 jerseys so that’s only going to make it more competitive and push everyone on. It is hard but sure if it was easy there’d be no fun in that.

“It makes it enjoyable coming to training, if you were coming down and you know that if you played badly you were going to get on anyway, you could have a bad session.

“One session you’re starting and the next time you’re training, the boys are pushing to get in. It keeps you on your toes and it helps to push yourself on and push everyone on around you.”

What could help Kelly’s case is his versatility. The Clann Éireann man can play, and has played, anywhere from midfield up but he’s well aware of his defensive duties as well. “You can really put me in anywhere,” chuckled the 22-year-old.

“With the sport the way it is now, you’re defending with 14 and you’re usually keeping one man up, but I like playing in around 11 or in around the middle. Anywhere around that middle eight is pretty good.

“You can throw me into 14 the odd time and I’ll try to win the ball whenever I can, but you have to be versatile nowadays. Sometimes you get caught in the full-back line and you have to call on some skills that you don’t usually have to call for. Anywhere around that middle eight really would be my preferred position but anywhere, if I’m playing then I’m happy.”

Former Derry attacker Conleith Gilligan has been added to the Armagh management team recently and Kelly hopes working alongside such knowledgeable forward coaches such as Gilligan and Kieran Donaghy can only push him on.

“When ‘Star’ (Donaghy) first came in, we were thinking, ‘is this real?’, joked Kelly. “But he brings his own flair to it and his own character to it and the same thing with Conleith coming in this year, he’s the exact same.

“He brings a bit of positivity, he brings a bit of freshness and he’s got new ideas and he’s constantly chirping at you and trying to push you on, and he reminds you, ‘why’d you not make that run?’ or ‘why did you not do this?’ so he keeps on top of you. It’s great to have those boys there of that calibre who are in and are pushing you on and trying to get the best out of everyone, boys that have been there and boys that have done it, there’s nobody better to be learning off.

“The level we’re playing at, every one percent you can get makes a difference. Having those boys in, if they can get an extra one per cent out of us, it could make a big difference. Last year we were beat on penalties by Derry and Monaghan.

“If someone said you could bring in anyone that’s going to give you that extra one per cent then you’d take it so having someone of the calibre of Conleith coming in, you’d like to think that will push us on again this year and get us to where we want to go.”

The first objective for Armagh this season will be to earn promotion back to Division One and once again sit among the top ranked teams in the country. Nothing is guaranteed in the league, but Kelly is hoping to make their home ground a fortress.

Four of Armagh’s seven league games will take place in the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds while the Orchard County will have home advantage in three of their opening four games, against Louth, Meath and Donegal.

“That’s one thing about Armagh, we’re not short for fans who are loud and want to get involved and the Athletic Grounds is always good for a packed crowd to get behind the boys and that really does push us on when the chips are down, and it can sometimes be the difference between winning games and not.”

Whatever happens this season, Armagh fans will be delighted to see ‘TK’ back in action and back delivering on the talent his underage and club form has promised.

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