Tony Kelly is still only 26 and that's a winner in itself for hurling lovers 8 months ago

Tony Kelly is still only 26 and that's a winner in itself for hurling lovers

As a hurling lover, discovering that Tony Kelly is only just gone 26 is like finding a stray €20 in an old pocket.

A clench of the fists and a smug head. Now we're hurling.

We've had him, graceful points, genius touches, flicks, tricks and pumping runs since 2013 and don't deserve him for much longer. But Kelly is hurling's gift to the ordinary world, and he has at least seven prime years to give.

What a time to follow hurling. It's the way 'TK' in the middle does it.

There's something so enthralling about an individual player single-handedly taking on a whole team and for Ballyea, a staple of their small club's wonderful success has been Kelly's one-man phenomenon type contribution. On song, he can turn an inter-county game into an artwork too.

It's the jaw-dropping scores, the inspiring moments and the blaze of glory that can last a full game. He beats a team on his own when the whirlwind blows.

2013 and the first gust came. It was eight years ago and Kelly was only 19 years of age but he amassed enough achievements and enough awards in that calendar year to have legendary preceding his name for life.

He was Davy Fitzgerald's main man in Clare's year of years. Scored 0-10 from play between the All-Ireland semi and the two finals and ended his season as the Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year. 19 years of age.

This was a special kind of talent. Big tallies and awards go so far but when you're doing it with the freedom and abandon as if only out pucking in the back yard, it's even more exciting. And the speed too, from one to ninety just like that with a sliotar for company, there are few more satisfying things to watch.

Problem was, Kelly was always going to be judged by standards that weren't humanly possible from that 18 onward and as soon as he went a few games without ripping up trees, the critics were calling.

But the critics are wide of the posts. Clare have struggled since 2013 but no Bannerman has hurled better. What about 2016, when he scored 1-6 from play to win the League final? Or the championship in 2018, when he hit Limerick for 0-6 in Munster and scored 0-5 from play against Wexford in the quarters.

And then there's the Ballyea story. The mid-Clare village are far from a one man team with Jack Browne, Gary Brennan and Niall Deasy all special in their own right, but their first ever Clare championship, followed by a Munster and a day out on Paddy's day wouldn't have happened without Tony's magic.

Imagine scoring a point like this to seal a Munster championship for your club.

You could say something if the early success had gone to Kelly's head and he lost the commitment but Kelly is one of the fittest inter-county hurlers out there and he's barely ever missed a game for Clare.

One can't go wild in every game, but the Clare man is giving it a right go. The Banner are up and running with two from two under Brian Lohan and against Wexford on Sunday, Kelly was the winning of the game, simple as.

He nailed the frees on a breezy Wexford day and struck two typically jaw-dropping points late on to seal the win for his county. The first of those, when he left Shaun Murphy scratching his head like a robber in the night was one of the most incredible points you'll see.

Work-rate, tackling, skill, speed and composure - it had it all - and the second was just as good when he left three home defenders for dead.

"Tony was immense," said Davy Fitz through gritted teeth afterwards.

The frees and the Brian Lohan impact might just set him up for 2013 part two. Either way, as his father Donal told us last year, Tony will be back out hurling against the wall afterward.

"He'd be down and upset after matches if they lost or if it didn't go well for him but he'd just be out and he'd take it out on the wall again."