Back then it was all so different! Drumree were the nearly men of junior football in the county. Back then the match programme prior to the 1996 All-Ireland final between Meath and Mayo carried a picture profile of Evan Kelly, age 22, 5’11", 13st, one Leinster SFC.
Of all the 15 Meath players that started the first day against Mayo he was the one who had the fewest haul of honours next to his name. The last time Drumree had contested a junior final was in 1991 and it had ended in defeat to Carnaross. Making the breakthrough looked like eluding them. But that was back then.
The intervening years have seen Drumree capture the Matthew Ginnity Cup and also be crowned Leinster Junior champions. In addition Evan Kelly’s stock in the GAA world has grown immensely. He has added to his collection of Leinster titles with Meath, won two All-Irelands and collected an All-Star. They have been the wonder years.
In 2002 he played for his club, his county, his province and his country. He has been the most in demand Meath footballer over the past 12 months.
On the club front the Drumree intermediate footballers clawed their way back to a play-off after a disappointing start to their championship campaign. In their first outing eventual champions Ballivor beat the red and white hoops 3-12 to 2-4. Towards the end of April Drumree played out a 1-9 to 0-12 draw with Donaghmore/Ashbourne. It was not the start they had wanted.
A comprehensive 3-12 to 1-8 victory over Moynalvey in May looked like getting Drumree back on track but Na Fianna hadn’t read the script and they dismissed of the Dunshaughlin parish side next time out in a closely fought game. "That was an important win against Moynalvey because of the previous results. The lads really gave it everything but the Na Fianna game knocked us back a bit. I thought Na Fianna looked very strong and was surprised they didn’t go further," says Evan.
Drumree’s chances of progressing in the championship appeared slim, but they battled out impressive wins over Syddan and St. Ultan’s in their next two games to force a do or die game against a strong Navan O’Mahony’s side. The winners advanced to the knockout stages and although Drumree were still in contention at the break, Navan ran out victors, 2-13 to 0-8.
"We were giving them loads during the game and could have won it. I mean it was still very close at half-time and for a lot of the second half as well. I had to go off with a dead leg but we were still in it. However they finished strong, getting two crucial goals, which helped them pull away," concedes Evan.
Drumree’s Division 3A league campaign never really got off the ground but they still managed to retain their status by avoiding relegation. "To be honest I think I only played in one league game all year because of my involvement with the Meath team. John Cullinane was also with the county team and missed a lot of the league games as well. It is a great honour for the club to have two players playing for Meath but it also puts a strain on them because they haven’t got a huge amount of players to pick from," believes Evan.
"Therefore our involvement with Meath can actually weaken the club. Sometimes when myself or John turn up for club training we would get a bit of slagging from the other lads saying stuff like ’Who are the new fellas?’ and so on. I mean a lot of club players have to wait around for months between games and personally if I wasn’t playing for Meath I would be doing something else where I was getting a game every week or so. It is tough on the lads that have to wait around," he adds.
Success also eluded the Drumree intermediate hurlers this year after they lost to St. Colmcilles by five points in a play-off for a semi-final place. Meanwhile the U-21 hurlers were unlucky to be beaten in their decider while at the time of going to press the Division Two team had reached a semi-final spot.
Drumree’s hurlers progressed to intermediate status in 1999 and they looked more than comfortable in the middle grade. They actually took on Boardsmill in the 2000 final but were narrowly defeated. In 2001 they once again looked capable of going all the way until they bowed out against Athboy in a semi-final. Drumree depend on St. Martins for their players from underage ranks and in recent years people like Willie Shanley, Sean White, Paul Barry (RIP), Jimmie Walsh and Michael Wallace have put in a lot of work at this level.
Over the last number of years they have won the U-13 championship, U-14 championship, minor ’B’ championship and U-14 County Feile. St. Martins have also had a number of players involved with Meath at all age groups in recent times. James Gaughan, Brian Coughlan, David Wallace, Eoin Reilly and Cormac Delaney have been part of the Meath U-15 set-up while Ronan Gilsenan and Rory Bowe have played with the U-16 side. At minor Caomhin King, Sean White, John Crimmins, Seamus Wallace and Brendan Walsh have all been involved.
At adult level Drumree have had Christopher Doyle, Brian Kenny and John Gilsenan called into the U-21 panel while David Troy has been with the seniors. A number of the younger players are part of Drumree’s Division Two team this year.
Indeed the club are planning to purchase an additional playing area to cater for the increased demands on their facilities. This year has seen a huge increase in the use of Drumree’s club grounds and besides St. Martins, the Royal Gaels Ladies footballers and hurlers were in regular attendance. In the coming year the main pitch will have floodlights while the clubhouse is in line for further development. Drumree have also become involved with the coaching of Gaelic Games in the local primary school of Culmullen.
Having players such as Evan Kelly and John Cullinane around has been a great incentive to young footballers in Drumree. But growing up Evan admits that he didn’t have to look too far in order to find one of the people who influenced his career. "My dad, Pat, was a big influence. He wasn’t involved this year but when he was he had everything very organised and put in a lot of work for the club."
Looking back on 2002 with Meath he says it was all rather strange. "We didn’t really have any luck this year and I believe you need a bit luck to win something. It was a funny sort of year. In the Dublin game they got two important goals but they weren’t that much better than us. The game against Louth was just unbelievable because we rarely get to play a championship match in Pairc Tailteann and to see a full house was amazing. Nothing seemed to be going right for us but we never gave up and Graham scored the late goal to win it for us. Then we beat Laois before we faced
Donegal where yet again it was their goal that beat us. Donal Curtis nearly scored one for us at the very end but it just went wide. On other occasions that would have bounced in but we just didn’t have the luck this year."
Many people have been discounting Meath’s chances in Leinster next year but he believes that is an oversight. "People forget that we played in an All-Ireland final in 2001 but expectations are so high that it was seen by some people as a disappointing year. I don’t believe we have become a bad team since that final."
The affable 28-year-old also played for Ireland in the International Rules Series against Australia in October. "It was a privilege to represent your country and it was great to be involved. It is a physical game but it is also exciting and you could see people enjoyed it by the turnout for the second match."
If that wasn’t enough Evan also represented Leinster in the Railway Cup in 2002. "Many people knock the competition but every player that was on those teams wanted to play. We beat Ulster in the final and they had the likes of Adrian Sweeney and Kieran McGeeney playing so it was by no means a weak side. It was a great honour for me to be the only Meath footballer playing in the final and to win it was magnificent - to be honest it was the only thing I won all year. But I would like to see the Railway Cup receive more
media coverage or be played at a better time because it is a worthwhile competition."
There is little doubt that Evan was the busiest Meath senior footballer this past year. In late November Sean Boylan brought a makeshift team up to Newry to face Armagh for an official pitch opening. As ever the Drumree man was present, showing his versatility by scoring 1-3 from midfield. "I suppose I have played a lot of football this year but I didn’t feel tired at all in the game against Armagh. I am really looking forward to next year."
He had just finished a 12-hour working day when he received a phone call shortly after 9pm from The Royal County Yearbook requesting an interview for this article. Many, indeed most, would have said no but Evan obliged.
In fact he has already set his sights on club and county glory in 2003. "Every year you start out with aspirations of winning. We have some good footballers in Drumree and championship success should not be ruled out. We have shown that we can hold our own at intermediate. As far as the county goes I would be delighted with a Leinster title. That is what we will aim for and take it from there."
In 1996 Evan Kelly was a junior club footballer with one Leinster senior football championship medal to his name. He has subsequently won pretty much every award in the game and where he gets his energy from to keep going is anyone’s guess!
True it was all so different in 1996 but we should have known the wonder years were coming, even back then.