The Borris-Ileigh cat is the out of the bag - Johnny Kelly’s men have the hurling to go along with the heart

The coverage of the All-Ireland club hurling final is in association with Ryan's of Camden Street (Dublin)

Brian McDonnell


Brian McDonnell


The Borris-Ileigh cat is the out of the bag - Johnny Kelly’s men have the hurling to go along with the heart

Borris-Ileigh manager Johnny Kelly represents a calming influence on the Tipp champions. Pic: Eamonn McGee

Johnny Kelly’s Borris-Ileigh team were getting away with it for a while. The pundits praised them solely for their heart without realising that they could hurl the ears off you, too. Now, as the AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship final against Ballyhale Shamrocks fast approaches, the Portumna man simply has to admit that Borris-Ileigh have the hurling to go along with their extraordinary heart.

The coverage of the All-Ireland club hurling final is in association with Ryan's of Camden Street (Dublin).

“We have, at times, played really well,” Johnny Kelly admitted to the Tipperary Star.

“Sometimes we would have heard the commentary - even throughout the Tipperary championship - that it was a dour game, that it wasn't a good game and that it didn't take off. But there is a beauty in that as well; that we didn't allow teams to take off. That (the quality of our hurling) didn't get picked up on by a lot of the commentators and we were happy that it didn't, but the cat's out of the bag now.”

Johnny Kelly was appointed manager of the Borris-Ileigh senior team in time for the 2017 season and right from the get-go he believed that the Borris-Ileigh players were capable of doing something special. So, their progress has not surprised him, no.

“I always said to them that the potential is here and they are probably the one team I have been involved with at club level since Portumna that had the ability to push on. It's probably taken themselves by a little bit of surprise,” Johnny Kelly said with a smile.


In 2017 the Borris-Ileigh men won division one of the county hurling league, won the North Tipperary Senior Hurling Championship for the first time in ten years and also qualified for the final of the County Senior Hurling Championship for the first time in twenty-nine years.

Johnny Kelly had Borris-Ileigh geared up to push on in 2018, but the project was hamstrung by a whole rash of injuries. The season petered out and Kelly admits now that he found the whole experience “extremely frustrating”.

“I would say extremely frustrating and through no one's fault. We realised in 2017 that we played some great hurling that year. We beat Nenagh Éire Óg in the North final and played well that day and had a great momentum going. Unfortunately, we didn't turn up in that county final and were beaten badly by Thurles (Sarsfields),” Johnny Kelly explained.

“We did mean to go on in 2018 and try to rectify that, but at every turn we were talking about injuries. There were a lot of players on the team in 2017 that just couldn't perform in 2018. It was very frustrating. So, that was the reason that I, personally, gave it another year in 2019 to see could we achieve our potential. The potential was here; it was about putting the jigsaw pieces together,” the Portumna man added.

Borris-Ileigh have the whole package: their hurling ability has been honed by Johnny Kelly, S&C coach Angelo Walsh has transformed the players into absolute machines, the tactical set-up is smart and leaders like Paddy Stapleton represent a key influence on the group while the entire club has also come in behind them in order to drive the project forward.

“It's not down to one particular thing at all, it's everything incorporated,” Johnny Kelly explained.

“We would have all known how skilful they are as a team, but psychologically we needed to get to a position where we were comfortable dealing with pressurised games; a little bit of structure and tactical stuff was the other area that we needed to look at. So, those were the two key areas.

“Physical fitness is vital to the type of game we play so Angelo Walsh (strength and conditioning coach) has been every bit as important to this group as I have been over the last three years,” Kelly added.

Johnny Kelly leads a management which also features selectors Philip Kenny, Martin Maher, Philip Maher and Angelo Walsh (S&C coach).


The performance against St Thomas’ in the recent All-Ireland semi-final (1-21 to 1-14) illustrated all that Is good about this Borris-Ileigh team.

Johnny Kelly’s men could point to outstanding individual performers like Brendan Maher, Conor Kenny and James Devaney, of course, but the Borris-Ileigh display also featured a solid structure and a whole host of selfless players who were prepared to sacrifice their own game and commit completely to performing a role within the tactical plan.

Tommy Ryan, for instance, ignored the game for the evening and marked Galway inter-county star David Burke out of the contest. No mean feat.

“Tommy's display and the role that he fulfilled for us against St Thomas' was critical,” Johnny Kelly admitted.

“I singled him out after the game because you can't win without having that type of player as well. He really delivered for us. Those are the small little areas that we focus on at different times; sometimes they work and more times they don't, but it is satisfying when a player follows instruction and gets a result for us.”


To reach this juncture Borris-Ileigh have ploughed their way through a thrilling campaign - first up they dismissed the defending county champions Clonoulty-Rossmore (1-18 to 1-15) before booking their place in the knock-out stage of the county championship courtesy of a 3-18 to 1-15 win over Toomevara.

In the county quarter-finals Johnny Kelly's men beat Drom & Inch (3-11 to 0-18), Kilruane MacDonagh's in the semi-finals (0-16 to 0-15) and Kiladangan in the final (1-15 to 1-12).

Meanwhile the provincial campaign featured a 1-17 to 3-8 semi-final win over Glen Rovers (Cork) and culminated in an unforgettable final victory against Waterford's Ballygunner (1-12 to 1-11).

Then, of course, Borris-Ileigh beat St Thomas’ (Galway) in the recent AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship semi-final (1-21 to 1-14).

En route to Sunday’s All-Ireland final Borris-Ileigh have enjoyed some fabulous victories, but manager Johnny Kelly has this week pin-pointed a defeat as the most significant turning point of the campaign.

Borris-Ileigh lost the Hibernian Inn North Tipperary Senior Hurling Championship final to Kiladangan in comprehensive fashion (1-8 to 2-13), but Johnny Kelly has argued that the collective response to that defeat, ultimately, transformed the season: “That day and that week was a turning point for us; to clear the air and set sail for the county championship which was our priority at the start of the year.”

The Borris-Ileigh panel pictured celebrating their Munster final win over Ballygunner. Picture: Eamonn McGee


Such resourcefulness is probably the key to understanding Johnny Kelly.

Kelly is a hands-on manager who likes to take responsibility for the coaching of his teams. Johnny sets high standards for his players and asks his panel to buy into his methodology while another key factor to Kelly’s approach is that he works hard to make sure his players enjoy their hurling.

To his credit Kelly's mind is open to new ideas in terms of hurling style, Johnny is a capable man manager, sharp in terms of the in-game management of tactics and is cognisant of the impact that a proper strength and conditioning programme can have on a panel of players.

All-in-all Johnny Kelly is an extraordinary all-rounder with a terrific way about him - Kelly builds relationships with players; he does not destroy them. But, perhaps, Johnny Kelly's greatest strength can be found in his experience with Portumna.

Portumna GAA Club was actually disbanded for a time during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The club was reformed, however, and some of the building blocks for the club’s remarkable success were laid with a junior title in 1982.

In 1986 Michael Ryan was secretary of Portumna and called a meeting to decide whether the club should re-grade to junior when they failed to pull together fifteen players in order to contest an intermediate match - Portumna went on to win four All-Ireland club titles based on the energy generated by that meeting.

The major breakthrough came for Portumna in 1992 when the club were promoted to the senior grade. Then in 2003 Portumna, finally, won the Galway senior hurling championship for the first time. Portumna landed five more senior titles during the ensuing decade while four of those were also converted into All-Ireland titles in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2014.

The key to building a successful club team is resourcefulness as opposed to playing resources. And, Kelly has carried that spirit of Portumna resourcefulness into his coaching career. Indeed, Kelly elevates common sense to the point of genius.

If you look at how Portumna, Kiladangan and Coolderry played and how Borris-Ileigh now play under Johnny Kelly you will find a bunch of club teams who do not resemble one another. Johnny Kelly is not dogmatic. He looks at his playing personnel, designs a style of play to suit those players and then works tirelessly to get the most out of the men at his disposal. It is a simple, yet devastatingly powerful approach. Indeed, many clubs and coaches could learn from the example set.


Slaughtneil pushed Ballyhale Shamrocks to their limit in the AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship semi-finals - Henry Shefflin’s men prevailed by five points (2-24 to 2-19) in the end and Johnny Kelly believes that the experience will stand to them.

“Slaughtneil are obviously a quality side,” Johnny Kelly explained.

“For Ballyhale to dig in and to come out of that can't be understated - the psychological lift that they will get from that; to come out of that battle will stand to them.

“They are the current All-Ireland champions and the fact they are going for two in-a-row is a sign of an exceptional team. But that probably brings its own pressure. We are rightly seen as underdogs, but we don't see ourselves as underdogs here; we see ourselves as a very confident bunch. Yes, we're happy to take on the underdogs tag, but we never see ourselves in that vein and we won't see ourselves that way on the 19th either.

“Nothing will phase Ballyhale Shamrocks. The experience that they have there is age-old. They can play it every way and they will take a lower profile going into this All-Ireland final than, possibly, Borris-Ileigh because we are the romantic story; coming from relative obscurity. Ballyhale will be happy to sit back and let Borris-Ileigh take the lead on that. So, the media attention and all of the focus will be on Borris-Ileigh.

“Having said that, it is still a game and it still has to be fought for on the day. There has been a number of lop-sided All-Ireland (club) finals over the last number of years. We are not thinking about winning the All-Ireland final; we are thinking about performing, first of all, and if it takes us to a win then we will take that,” Johnny Kelly added.

With Portumna Johnny Kelly was a member of Jimmy Heverin's management team which delivered Galway county titles in 2005 and 2007 along with All-Ireland club titles in 2006 and 2008. Kelly succeeded Heverin as manager and duly delivered the 2008 and 2009 county titles and, of course, the 2009 All-Ireland club title when Portumna beat De La Salle (Waterford) by nineteen points thanks to an extraordinary display. Kelly then steered Portumna to the 2010 All-Ireland club final, but the Galway champions lost out to Ballyhale Shamrocks in a thriller.

Further to that Kelly worked as coach with Kiladangan under manager Séamus Gleeson in 2013-14 when helping the North Tipperary club to win the Frank McGrath Cup (2013) before losing a county semi-final narrowly after a replay.

Johnny was appointed manager of Coolderry in Offaly in time for the 2015 season and duly delivered the county title. Indeed, Kelly was a busy man in 2015 - his three-year term as coach to the Galway intermediate and under-21 squads came to a conclusion when the Tribesmen won the All-Ireland intermediate crown. In 2015 he also coached Abbeyknockmoy to the intermediate title before the Galway club lost out to Bennettsbridge (Kilkenny) in the All-Ireland final.

Kelly managed Coolderry once more in 2016 before being appointed manager of the Roscommon senior hurling team and Borris-Ileigh in time for the 2017 season.


And, at this remove it is interesting to note that in 2010 Johnny Kelly’s Portumna side faced into an All-Ireland club final chasing a third successive title and, of course, were red-hot favourites against a Ballyhale Shamrocks team who, ultimately, beat them with five points to spare (1-19 to 0-17).

Now the roles are reversed; Ballyhale Shamrocks are chasing history and Johnny Kelly’s Borris-Ileigh are cast in the role of potential party poopers.

“That was our third year on the road and we had a feeling that the pressure got to us to deliver the three in-a-row,” Johnny Kelly told the Tipperary Star.

“It is quite a pressurised situation to do a two in-a-row or a three in-a-row. Portumna, obviously, delivered the second one and then we were really pushing on for the third. Ballyhale are now in that position where they want to put back-to-back titles. They are the best team in the country by a mile and have been for the last number of years. It's within their grasp to take that two in-a-row, but we really will have a say in that.”


The Borris-Ileigh management and back room team reads as follows - manager: Johnny Kelly (Portumna, Galway), selectors: Philip Kenny, Martin Maher, Philip Maher & Angelo Walsh (S&C coach), physio: John Butler & Declan Maher, doctor: Kevin Delargy, kit man: Diarmuid Kinane, water boys: Séamus Ryan & Cian Stapleton, stats man: Martin Ryan, video man: Robert Healy, ball boy: Martin Fahy, bus driver: Joe Kennedy, club chairman: Mark Stapleton, club secretary: Gerry Treacy, club treasurer: Henry Groome and PRO: Philip Fahey.


The full Borris-Ileigh senior hurling panel reads as follows: James McCormack, Séamus Burke, Paddy Stapleton, Liam Ryan, Seán McCormack (joint- captain), Brendan Maher, Ray McCormack, Tommy Ryan, Dan McCormack, Kieran Maher, Niall Kenny, Conor Kenny (joint- captain), Kevin Maher, Jerry Kelly, James Devaney, Ciarán Hackett, Jody Harkin, Jack Hogan, Ciarán Cowan, Thomas Fahy, Matthew Stapleton, Maurice Ryan, Micheál Carey, Ryan Murphy, Vincent Stapleton, David O’Connor, Declan Ryan, Aaron Rabbitte, Patrick O’Connell, Michael Ryan & Shane Kenny.


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