Almost 30 years ago, the Reids were the first family in Ballyhale to get miniature goalposts.
Henry Shefflin’s brother, Paul, was friendly with Patrick Reid so Henry would tag along, trekking up the hill to Reid’s home in Kiltorcan, which overlooks a blanket of five counties and peers down on a parish bursting with tradition, where the deeds and feats of past hurlers have been deposited like nutrients in the soil.
The fertile land in Ballyhale has been producing golden hurling harvests for decades, but that little paddock in Reid’s helped grow two of the game’s greatest players. The matches were always competitive and intense but Patrick’s younger brother, TJ, was stuck in the middle of the gang of boys, not yet five, but already attempting to make the ball talk.
“Even back then,” says Henry Shefflin, “you could see that TJ was going to be something special.”
The ritual was well established through those golden, eternal days. The boys would hurl for hours before the late Mary Reid would summon them for sustenance, mostly chips and chicken nuggets, sometimes sausages, washed down with juice. And then the boys would go back out hurling. Again. And again.
Henry was eight years older than TJ but they still lived by the same code and creed. TJ was just four when his mother brought him to the door of Joe Dunphy’s office in St Patrick’s National School. TJ wanted to make an announcement. He told Dunphy that he was coming to school ‘to hurl for Show’. He couldn’t say Joe at the time.
Shefflin had moved on to St Kieran’s College by then. When Reid started in Kieran’s, Shefflin was studying in Waterford IT. During those college years, when the living was easy and his time was more plentiful, Shefflin would often spend his afternoons in Ballyhale hitting frees or doing shooting drills. Reid didn’t need to have prior notice of Shefflin’s timetable to know the routine; the school bus passed the field and, if Shefflin was there, Reid would ask the driver to stop.
“I’d see this young fella in his school uniform come in through the hedge,” says Shefflin.
Ballyhale have always produced remarkable players and great teams, over and over again. The odds on such a small parish consistently growing golden generations have always been immaterial but it is still a freak for one club to harvest two of the game’s greatest hurlers from one crop.
Shefflin was the greatest player of this, or perhaps any, generation but Reid’s name now occupies a place in the public consciousness reached by Shefflin, DJ Carey, Nicky English, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Eddie Keher, and a line of others reaching back to Christy Ring and beyond.
“I don’t want to put the kibosh on him for Sunday but TJ has to be rated as one of the greats of Kilkenny,” says DJ Carey. “Absolutely, no doubt about it. TJ is invaluable to Kilkenny now. That’s where he stands. Whenever TJ is on the field of play, Kilkenny will be looking to him. Whenever he does give it up, which we hope won’t be for a while yet, TJ will certainly go down as one of hurling’s greats.”
So many Kilkenny players of the last two decades achieved greatness long before their careers finished. The hierarchy has become a crowded place but Reid has now entered the elite sphere, holding that unique torch passed on to him from Keher to Carey to Shefflin.
“TJ is a super player,” says Eddie Keher. “His skill levels are so incredible that I just love watching him. He’s the complete player because his workrate is so good. TJ reminds me of Jimmy Doyle.
Reid is undoubtedly Kilkenny’s main player now, but the wonder of his journey into the elite stratosphere is that it took so long to take off. The first half of Reid’s career was mired in such frustration that he had decided to walk away in the middle of the 2012 championship.
After being dropped for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick, Reid went straight home after training and texted Shefflin to see if he was around for a chat. Shefflin met him at his house and Reid was unequivocal — he’d hurled his last game for Kilkenny. Shefflin tried to convince him otherwise. He sent Reid a text of encouragement on the Saturday without knowing if Reid had taken his threat any further. Reid hadn’t. He’d had a fairly frank phone call with selector Martin Fogarty but he came off the bench that Sunday and controlled the game. Reid ended the season with an All-Star. And never looked back.
His numbers in the meantime do full justice to Reid’s brilliance. Despite not being a regular starter for the first six years of his career, and being injured for most of 2013, Reid has still managed to become the sixth highest championship scorer in history. Despite only assuming the primary free-taking duties since 2014, Reid has managed to edge ahead of Keher and Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly this summer to become hurling’s 4th deadliest placed-ball marksman.
“He has been incredible over the last 5-6 years,” says Shefflin.
By the time Shefflin retired in early 2015, Reid had already been anointed as the leader of the Kilkenny attack. As more and more great Kilkenny players departed the stage, Reid picked up the mantle of responsibility, fully understanding the imperative at hand. In the flux, Kilkenny needed Reid to be more constant, even better, than ever. And he has been.
In his early days, Brian Cody didn’t trust Reid, because he didn’t work hard enough, but everything about Reid’s game now is in sync with Cody’s ideals and demands.
“Brian wanted to instil that work-ethic in TJ that wasn’t there,” says Shefflin. “His workrate is brilliant now, but TJ had to step up to the plate because he’s playing on a team where they’re depending on him.”
For years, Reid was just one of a glittering cast of outstanding forwards but the proportional needs of the players around him has vastly changed compared to his early days. After taking his scoring standards to a whole new level in the 2018 league, when bagging 1-81, including 30 points from 33 shots in the league semi-final and final, Reid entered the 2018 championship with a new target on his back. Dublin smothered him in the opening game, with Eoghan O’Donnell all over Reid like a cheap suit, and Sean Moran sweeping behind him. “Last year, there was nearly three fellas marking him in most matches,” says Keher.
Trying to contain Reid is one of the first priorities of any opposition when facing Kilkenny. Matthew O’Hanlon’s man-marking job on Reid in Wexford Park in June was one of the individual defensive displays of the championship. And Reid has sometimes struggled to deal with that level of adhesive attention.
“It’s not easy,” he said last December. “You don’t get the same freedom that other players do. When I started off, there was none of this man-marking s*** but it’s something you have to deal with.” He has. Reid has clipped 3-12 from 20 shots from play this summer but his assists rate is off the charts. The outstanding statistician Barry Cleary has shown how Reid has had 41 assisted shots in this championship, with assists for 24 points. He actually had a better assist rate last year, the best in the championship with 4.17, which further underlined Reid’s importance to Kilkenny under such intense heat.
From 73 shots from placed balls this year, Reid has nailed 2-60. Reid may have failed to score from just two shots from play in his last two games but Reid either set up, or was fouled for, ten points against Cork and Limerick; he also won 14 puckouts in the same two games.
“If I score five points from play, great, but it’s the overall work rate you really want,” he said last December. “You have to sacrifice yourself for the team. I don’t mind if I don’t score as long as I know in my heart that I worked my ass off for the team. In most games, I know I’m setting up scores for other individuals. If I win the ball, there are going to be two or three lads racing at me.
He has a catching hand though, as big and effective as the Hulk. “TJ is unique in the game because he’s a serious ball winner,” says Carey. “He’ll win 40-60 or 30-70 balls, which makes him exceptional, but he’s also one of these guys who can score after he’s won it. He’s able to do it all, which is very unusual.”
Shefflin played with some of the greatest players to dominate the sky — Peter Barry, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh — but Reid still stands apart. “He’s the best fielder of the ball I’ve ever seen,” says Shefflin. “Some of the guys I played with were unbelievable in the air but I can’t remember a better forward in the air than TJ. And in the modern game, where everyone is going up to try and stop TJ from catching the ball, he’s still catching it. I think that is his greatest skill.
“When Kilkenny have been under pressure in big games over the last few years, the first thought of any defender is almost ‘Where’s TJ so I can put it straight down on top of him?’ If he doesn’t win it, nobody else will. His body positioning and body strength comes from all the conditioning work he’s done over the last few years. All the hard work is paying off now.”
At 31, Reid is the oldest member of the Kilkenny squad but he’s in the shape of his life. Reid was always obsessive about gym work. He has sculpted his body over time but the whole area always fascinated him so much that he and his business partner, Richard Connolly, opened up they TJ Reid Health and Fitness gym in Kilkenny in April 2017.
For the first six months, Reid combined the work with his day job at Connolly’s Red Mills, but the strain was too much and he threw everything into his new business venture in October 2017. Not being on the road as much has kept him fresher. Reid’s lower back isn’t as stiff as it used to be. The job has also enabled him to do his own recovery session on a Monday.
Reid is in a more stable life place now too. In March, he got engaged to model Niamh De Brún. “TJ has matured as a person and he’s very comfortable where he is in life and in work,” says Shefflin.
He is the absolute leader of this Kilkenny team now but Reid has embraced the responsibility, because he always wanted it. He spent long enough craving that pressure. If anything, pressure extracts the best from Reid.
When Ballyhale played Dicksboro in last year’s county quarter-final, Reid missed three penalties in the first half. He went out after half-time and gave an exhibition, scoring 1-4 from play. The goal was a handy-point option, but he took off on a 50m solo run before nailing the sliotar in the bottom corner. For one of his points, Reid was facing his own goal but he threw the ball up over his shoulder before curling it over the bar.
The quality and breadth of his talents continue to underpin Reid’s consistent excellence.
He has already secured his place in the pantheon of greats but every day Reid plays now is always another opportunity to showcase the genius first forged in the crucible of practice in that small paddock in Ballyhale.
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