'Let's exorcise demons'
Fennelly eager to beat Tipp and banish lingering angst from last year's final defeat
THEY have been haunted by it in interviews and conversation to such an extent that perhaps only victory on Sunday will banish the remaining residue of Kilkenny's League final defeat by Dublin, but as a starting point for all the good that came after, it surely represents their ground zero.
It was perhaps the first time a Kilkenny defeat split opinion on the Cats so evenly. Roughly half of those with an opinion reckoned it was further evidence of the decay which had set in the previous September, more proof that Kilkenny were in decline.
The Cats, they said, were old and weary and the legs had gone against a Dublin team with heaps more speed and energy and, yes, hunger. They were skinned raw and got narky in a way that has never been their style.
The rest reckoned that the day was merely a freak. That after last year, Brian Cody didn't need a league title as much as Anthony Daly did and that come September, when we're analysing the year in the build-up to yet another All-Ireland final appearance for Kilkenny, we'll all look back at laugh at ourselves for getting so worked up the result.
Internally though, there was at least some confusion to what had happened.
"You were wondering, 'are we after taking a few steps backwards or are Dublin after taking a couple of steps forward?", remembers Michael Fennelly. "Where are we lying?' Are we even in the top four in Ireland or what's the story?!' It was worrying times alright."
By way of explanation, it was suggested -- not unreasonably it must be said -- that on the day, Kilkenny were missing four of their top men: Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Richie Power and Fennelly.
Given that the return of that quartet coincided/caused such a dramatic upsurge in Kilkenny's subsequent performances, hindsight would suggest the league final 'missing men' excuse held considerable truth.
The four names, however, hold a torch to the old theory that once the old architects of the four-in-a-row team shuffle softly off into retirement, Kilkenny's 'golden age' would follow over the horizon.
It is a widely-held view that the four are the most vital individuals in the Kilkenny team and Shefflin and Walsh's inclusion in such illustrious company is naturally a given.
But the acceptance now that Power and Fennelly have become such effective hurlers and so central to the Kilkenny effort just shows that, while the team that lines out on Sunday may have just six of the same starters from the first All-Ireland success of the four-in-a-row back in 2006, Brian Cody hasn't just cultivated a new wave of talented hurlers, he's nurtured them into big-game leaders.
"Our team from even three years ago has changed dramatically," Fennelly acknowledges. "We might have had a stronger panel three years ago. I was a sub, John Dalton, Michael Rice ... a good few of us were subs that day and fighting for our place and I don't think we were too far off then.
"The likes of Derek Lyng now, who's passed on, Michael Kavanagh, Eddie Brennan they're all in their near mid-30s ... we're looking for fresh players now coming in, like Paddy and Richie Hogan and the brother (Colin), Paul Murphy who's been regular at corner-back ... it's important to keep that coming, it has definitely changed in the last three years."
Fennelly, in particular, has served an elongated apprenticeship. At 26, he's not exactly 'fresh' by today's standards, and this year was the first season in which he has held down any sort of permanent place in the team.
In fact, though he joined the panel in '06, his only September contributions in five finals were as substitutes in '08 and last year.
Yet his form was such this season that Kilkenny have never once looked like missing Derek Lyng.
His contributions from the middle have marked Fennelly as a strong contender for Hurler of the Year, yet he can't quite shake the memories of 2010 and the defeat by Tipp and is planning on exorcising a few ghosts on Sunday.
"It had to end at some stage and unfortunately it happened in an All-Ireland final, probably the worst time to lose. The feeling ... you're out in Citywest that night, with no Sunday Game in the hotel or anything like that. Then on Monday there was the homecoming. That was very tough, it just drags out, not a nice feeling whatsoever.
"We got Monday out of the way and then basically I sat at home and kept the head down for a week."
"But after losing the All-Ireland final we were looking for a crack again at Tipperary. Look it's Tipperary, they're the best team out there at the moment and we're happy to be playing them," Fennelly adds. "You want to beat the best and they are the best."