Ahead of this Saturday’s MyClubShop.ie Senior Singles final, Eoin Kennedy’s competitive edge remains as sharp as ever, he tells Mark McGowan.
The largely partisan crowd erupted again as the great white hope of capital handball closed out the opening game. The year was 2001, and the full house at Croke Park were well aware that what they were witnessing could be the baton change from generation to generation.
Headlining the main event of the handballing summer for the first time, everything was going to plan for Eoin Kennedy. Built on the foundations of an energetic and tireless all-round game, and a serve that was as repeatable as it was infuriating to return, the coronation of a new big alley king looked a mere 21 points away.
But that’s the great thing about sport. Scripts are made to be torn up. After as one-sided an opening game as Croke Park had ever witnessed (21-2 to Kennedy), Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh, the man who had made handball’s biggest stage his own for the best part of 20 years, had a sting in the tail.
Narrowly losing the second game 21-19, Kennedy never recovered, trailing throughout the decider and eventually falling 21-15.
Failure is an inevitability for anybody who has ever achieved anything in life, and the true mark of a champion is not to shy away from it, but to embrace it, to learn from it, and to build upon it.
“What ultimately happened after the first game,” Kennedy recalled last week, “is when somebody wins a game easily in handball, they’ve played really well and the other player has played really badly. What tends to happen is the player who has played really badly improves and the other player’s game can drop.
“My game dipped a little and Ducksy’s game came up a lot. I had chances near the end, I probably wasn’t as aggressive as I should’ve been and once he sneaked the second game he was in control.”
“I took a lot away from that game though, and the following year [in the final v Ducksy again] I took the first game pretty handily as well, 21-6, and I remember talking to my Dad before going in for the second game and it was just like, “be as aggressive as you can and don’t let up”, and I didn’t let up, and I won it, and that was a big turning point in my handball career.”
A big turning point indeed. Kennedy would go on to win eight titles in nine years and, having usurped the king, took his rightful place on the big alley throne.
Challengers came and went, before a young Westmeath man named Robbie McCarthy made his first main event appearance in 2009, and Kennedy and McCarthy have monopolised the senior singles in the years since.
Approaching their 10th consecutive final, there has been a natural arc to the proceedings, with Kennedy dominating the first encounter, and winning a close second before McCarthy claimed his first title and has gone on to win five of six battles since.
“Robbie really is an outstanding 60×30 player, and he really should get more credit than he does for what he has achieved over the past six or seven years” the Dubliner concedes, “and he has no doubt had the better of our rivalry of late.”
Now 39, the struggle for motivation has laid its inevitable hand on Kennedy, however, it is the love of the game that keeps the engineer coming back for more.
“I just enjoy playing, to be honest. I was obviously a lot hungrier and more motivated when I was younger, and all the stuff you’d expect, but now I just really enjoy playing, but when I go into the court, I still do my best to win, but that’s it really. I enjoy playing training games, but I still love competition. There’s nothing like competition.
“You pick up injuries more frequently now, and the legs don’t have the same stamina that they used to, but you can make up for that by being a bit cuter and with better shot selection. You can’t be running all night long.”
Does that lead to a more attacking approach? Not really. You don’t win seven championships in a row without being aggressive in the first place.
“There were some finals I played where I was playing really well and I felt that I couldn’t miss, but other occasions, it wasn’t really there.”
That is the main difference. When on at the top of his game, Kennedy was unbeatable, but even when somewhat sub-par, shot-making wise, Kennedy had the legs and tactical acumen to outlast his opponents. Nowadays, against an opponent of McCarthy’s class, the nine-time champion knows he needs to take his chances when they are presented.
“Ducksy played in finals in his 40s, and you can play in finals, but it’s much harder to win them. Even the great Ducksy wasn’t able to win a final in his 40s, so it’s a big ask,” Kennedy admits.
“The big thing you lose as you get older is that dynamism. I used to play at a real high intensity, and people would always have said that when they played me, that you knew you were in for a real physical battle, and as that dynamism goes, you have to try to make up for it in different ways and with different shots.”
In 2014, a 35-year old Kennedy turned back the clock to upset the apple cart and claimed a ninth softball title. Now, four years on, the odds of the elder statesman repeating the feat are longer still, not that a 10th title is a motivating factor.
“Nine titles or ten, my legacy doesn’t really change. That’s not what I’m here for. What you’ve won is what you’ve won, and as long as I’m enjoying it then I’m going to play.”
Win or lose, in triumph and despair, it’s all for the love of the game.