TEN YEARS AGO, he was on top of the hurling world.
When Conor Phelan reflected on his hurling endeavors at the close of 2003, it was impossible to have regrets. His college career had began in a blaze of glory as he did a Fitzgibbon Cup and Freshers double with Waterford IT.
He moved seamlessly to the inter-county arena and that September came on as a substitute to play his part in the Kilkenny win over Cork that landed the Liam McCarthy Cup. Seven days after he shot 1-4 as the Kilkenny U21’s landed the All-Ireland title against Galway.
“It doesn’t get much better than that”, reflects Phelan now. “That winter, I knew I was after a very special year”.
A decade on, he is getting ready for his first county senior hurling final. Phelan turned 30 in September and tomorrow will be in Nowlan Park as Clara return to a Kilkenny senior hurling showpiece for the first time since 1990. The club’s only other final appearance was in 1986 when they claimed their only title to date.
The drought the club has endured is enough reason for Phelan to appreciate tomorrow’s occasion. But his own experience will make him relish this hurling day all the more.
In 2004 he featured in two more All-Ireland finals. Defeat when brought on as a sub for the seniors, victory when starting in attack for the U21’s. That U21 setup featured future Kilkenny luminaries like Walsh, Fennelly, Larkin, Tennyson and Rice.
Conor Phelan in action against Cork’s Diarmuid O’Sullivan in the 2003 All-Ireland hurling final.
Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Phelan’s career was packed with potential but in 2005 it hit a roadblock. When full-back Noel Hickey was discovered that year to have a heart problem, the entire Kilkenny senior squad was tested as a precaution.
Tests detected that there was a problem with a valve in Phelan’s heart. Further tests highlighted the pressure that could be exerted if he tried to continue to meet the demands of an inter-county hurler. He was advised to stop playing.
“It was a tough thing to be told”, recalls Phelan. “But the way I look at it is that if I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have known I had this condition. So I’m blessed in that way.
“You can look at the lads that went on to win six or seven All-Ireland’s. But I still had three years playing for Kilkenny and enjoyed success. There’s an awful lot of lads who played hurling that would have loved to have won. So I appreciate what I had.”
For a time his sporting career was dormant. But a second opinion helped it erupt once more. He visited a heart specialist in London and was told he could play again with his condition.
He reached a compromise and opted not to return to the senior inter-county game. In 2008 he did go on to captain Kilkenny to win an All-Ireland intermediate title.
Now he works as a GAA Officer in Waterford IT and the past 12 months have yielded a treasure trove of golden moments with his club.
Two years ago Clara were relegated from senior level. But they bounced back. Last November they won the Kilkenny intermediate final, by February they had added Leinster and All-Ireland titles.
They have maintained that winning habit in 2013. Clara players heavily populated the 2008 and 2009 Kilkenny U21 sides that reached successive All-Ireland finals. Now that gifted group has blossomed.
“Two years ago we were down in the dumps”, says Phelan. “It showed things don’t come that easy at adult level. But we’ve got it together.
“Myself and my brother John (Clara’s full-back) would be two of the eldest in the squad. Behind us you have the likes of Neal Prendergast, Eoin O’Shea, Liam and Lester Ryan, Keith Hogan, James Nolan and David Langton who are all serious players.
“At intermediate level we dug out some great wins. We bonded together on that run over the winter. Then to win the All-Ireland final in Croke Park in February with my club was one of the best days of my life. We’ve kept it going from there.”
Clara players celebrate last February’s All-Ireland intermediate final win.
Pic: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Now they are 60 minutes away from senior glory. Carrickshock’s side is stocked with household names. But it is a day that Phelan and Clara will savour.
“I’m really looking forward to it. After my heart problems, I’m delighted to be still playing. I get a check up every six months just to see that everything is in working order. It’s all good so far.
“To be playing in a Kilkenny senior final now with Clara is fantastic. We’re underdogs but we’ll be giving it everything”.