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Kelly left to star gaze

THEY ransacked the history books this year, storming their way to National League glory, filleting Galway in Leinster, reaching their first All-Ireland semi-final in aeons and then, even in their injury-ravaged state, coming within touching distance of toppling the reigning champions, Tipperary.

It was, for sure, one hell of a ride for the Dublin hurlers. So why haven’t they got more than two All Stars?

This writer wasn’t a hurling selector this year (we have no such get-out clauses when the football team is announced tonight), which makes it far easier to quibble with the final 15 team unveiled today.

But quibble, we must: while goalkeeper Gary Maguire and roaming talisman Liam Rushe (at midfield) are fully deserving of their maiden All Stars, surely Peter Kelly should have made it a hat-trick of baubles for the Sky Blues?

Instead, the Lucan express train must be content with that nominal close-but-no-cigar award reserved for that of Unluckiest All Star Omission.

This bugbear apart, the 2011 GAA GPA Hurling All Stars, sponsored by Opel, are along largely predictable and controversy-free lines. Kilkenny lead the way with eight awards, as befits the All-Ireland champions; followed by Tipperary with four, Dublin with two and Waterford with one in the guise of John Mullane.

There is a record-breaking tenth All Star for Henry Shefflin while his Kilkenny colleague, Tommy Walsh, maintains his own incredible unbroken streak by landing a ninth consecutive award.

The Cats, quite rightly, rule the roost – but back to our defensive bone of contention. Kelly faced some admittedly strong competition in the full-back line and ultimately found himself squeezed out by Kilkenny rookie Paul Murphy and Tipperary duo Paul Curran and Michael Cahill.

Murphy, it must be said, was a corner-back shoo-in after a rock-solid debut campaign in Black-and-Amber … and both of the Tipp men had very consistent summers too, as their individual player ratings through Munster and the All-Ireland series underline.

Yet we can’t escape the belief, subjective and all as it is, that Kelly’s heroic necklace of performances as a converted full-back warranted recognition.

True, this ‘natural’ half-back endured a difficult summer opener against Offaly last May, pushed into corner-back duty and caught out of position when Shane Dooley rifled home a first-half goal. But from that juncture on, Kelly was immense.

He started at centre-back in the Leinster semi-final against Galway but was quickly parachuted into ‘square’ patrol after regular full-back Tomás Brady tore his cruciate.

The jet-heeled Kelly duly delivered a tour de force against Joe Canning. Then against Kilkenny in the Leinster final, when all around him Dublin were shipping water, he recovered from Eoin Larkin’s goal to hurl up a second-half storm.

He maintained that stellar form-line against Limerick in Thurles … and in the All-Ireland semi-final, a nightmare opening against Lar Corbett gave way to a towering performance.

In retrospect, that one uncharacteristic failure to gather possession, duly pounced on by the predatory Corbett for Tipp’s early goal, may have cost Kelly an All Star.

In summary, we reckon Kelly should have made the cut because – in several of the above games – he came under frequent bombardment and refused to buckle.

Still, there is something historic to savour for Dublin. Never before, in the four decades of the All Stars scheme, have two Sky Blue hurlers been honoured in the same season – in fact, they had only won three in total beforehand, the most recent going to Alan McCrabbe two years ago.

That simply had to change on foot of their season-long consistency, right through a gloriously groundbreaking league and only bar a couple of provincial performance blips against Offaly and Kilkenny.

Maguire made a host of wonderful saves en route to becoming Dublin’s first All Star netminder in hurling – with his footballing counterpart, Stephen Cluxton, hotly tipped to make it a double for the Sky Blues.

Likewise, Rushe couldn’t be ignored after delivering some inspirational displays in a variety of positions.

Kelly apart, a couple of other Dubs can count themselves a tad unlucky to miss out. But for his ill-timed motorcycle mishap, surely Conal Keaney would have crowned his small ball comeback season with an All Star.

Closer to goal, championship top scorer Paul Ryan (2-47; 1-40f, 1-0 pen, 0-1 ‘65') also had strong claims but probably needed a few more points from play to squeeze out Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan.