Future is bright for Ballyhale: 'You’d hope to entice every young lad and lassie in the parish into being a hurler'

Ballyhale Shamrocks captain TJ Reid, centre, celebrates with team-mates Mark Aylward, left, and Joey Holden in 2014

Ballyhale Shamrocks may be one of hurling’s most decorated clubs, but tradition counts for little in the quest to build, develop and grow. A five-year fundraising drive was launched last week with TJ Reid and Joey Holden amongst those working to secure the future for the next generation of young talents. writes PM O’Sullivan

Holden is describing thundering across South Kilkenny on a horse.

Excitement lids his voice. Hurling at a high level made hunting far less frequent in his life.

People who don’t do it find the whole thing mad to understand,” he says. “They think: what the hell are those lads at? But if you’re involved, tearing across fields, going through places maybe you shouldn’t be going through… There’s no thrill like it.

TJ Reid interjects: “Breaking up farmers’ fields!”

His clubmate, unruffled, continues: “I still do it when I can. Still keep a horse at home. The father and the grandfather would have hunted in their time with the Mullinavat Harriers.”

Holden looks over, puckish, enjoying this response. “Hunting is getting more difficult now,” he explains. “The more wire farmers put up, the harder it gets. When my grandfather was hunting, it was more or less open country.”

Reid again: “There couldn’t be enough wire put up.”

Future is bright for Ballyhale: 'You’d hope to entice every young lad and lassie in the parish into being a hurler'

They are the same and they are different and they are Ballyhale. One is a woodwork teacher in Kilkenny Vocational School. The other recently opened a gym in the town, courageous in his conviction for a life change. He retains a sideline in breeding pedigree livestock on the family farm.

Ballyhale is a quiet freakish place. Could such men ever pass up hurling? Not by each father’s go and groove. Patrick Holden and Seán Reid were part of the Ballyhale Shamrocks generation that shredded records, nine senior titles between 1978 and 1991, three All-Ireland club titles the stare behind the smile.

Not that grimace was ever needed. Ballyhale found serious hurlers long before Ballyhale Shamrocks was founded in 1972. Most of those figures played with the old Carrickshock club during the 1930s and ’40s. Jimmy Walsh, a Ballyhale native, accepted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1932 and 1939.

The parish, which contains more than 100 senior medals, provided a victorious captain for Kilkenny on seven further occasions.

Nine times represents a quarter of the county’s 36 senior titles, a remarkable ratio. Ballyhale Shamrocks now have six senior All-Ireland titles, another record.

Yet no one dwells on the past, however rich these distinctions. There is always another match to be won, Junior C to Senior. Besides, dwelling on the past fossilizes the present.

Reid in action for Kilkenny earlier this year
Reid in action for Kilkenny earlier this year

There is a fresh stir about their home place. A five-year fundraising drive was launched last week, one centred on a draw in which first prize comprises a day trip next July to Ballyhale. The winning club will be coached and mentored by locals, a roster that includes Joey Holden and TJ Reid as well as Colin Fennelly, Michael Fennelly, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and Henry Shefflin.

“The club is looking forward, which is good,” Reid summarizes.

The committee just purchased a field for juvenile pitches, which is crucial. There’s a gym after being set up as well.

“You’d hope to entice every young lad and lassie in the parish into being a hurler. Nobody should slip through the cracks.”

This initiative possesses a wider context, with the village of Ballyhale a particular concern. I grew up outside it during the 1980s when it contained four shops, three pubs and a post office. Only one pub remains.

Reid elaborates: “We want to build a situation where you can go down and meet your friends in a nice environment for a puckaround. Or go to the gym and get the work done. Parents can meet in the field, and maybe have a cup of tea, and create that culture down there, where people are surrounded by Ballyhale Shamrocks and what it stands for.”

The 1990s, when TJ Reid was young, were much as the same as the 1980s as regards local amenities. He feels the contrast with 2018: “This is why we’ve all come together behind this initiative. The parish needs a hub, a focus.”

Holden concurs: “Our parish has probably been hit hard enough by the economic downturn. Driving through Ballyhal e village, it can look a bit gloomy at times. But they are still jolly people.

“The centre now of all activity is the hurling field, whereas in the past it was the pubs and the shops. Those landmarks are more or less gone. So anything that improves the hurling field improves the whole parish.”

Enhancing juvenile facilities hones their desire to be involved with this draw.

You could be there on a Wednesday evening for training,” Holden states. “The amount of kids running around is unbelievable. The new juvenile field can only make that better again.

“I was down early for training a few times and went watching the juvenile coaching. Lots of noise and shouting but all encouragement. The kids are thriving. I don’t think you ever see a child’s face without a smile on it.”

His colleague enjoys visitors’ bemusement at the lie of the land: “Teams would come down to Ballyhale Shamrocks, from the north or wherever, expecting state of the art facilities, pitches with floodlights, all weather surfaces. Then they see two hurling fields and two dressingrooms.

“We have excellent hurlers but that’s all, beyond the basics. The Development committee is changing that situation. But it’s the juvenile pitches that will be key. Any club’s biggest asset is children interested in hurling.”

Reid is proud of his club’s past but knows fossils are for museums: “You would hear people saying the old team won three Club All Irelands without any dressingroom to tog out in. That was an amazing achievement.

“Now, though, it’s time to adapt and move on, and to have a centre of excellence, for our own community. It’s something that’s really needed.”

Any Ballyhale childhood and youth is laminated with hurling. Born in 1987, TJ Reid was old enough to be on the Féile na nGael panel that won Roinn A in 1998. “That was a Club All-Ireland for youngsters,” he notes. “A massive day. The whole parish was there.”

Born in 1990, Joey Holden had a different experience: “I can remember the Féile but I wasn’t really a part of it, being too young. Our age group didn’t have as many good hurlers in it. We were mainly hurled in the C grade, coming up.”

Joey Holden celebrated with team-mates in 2015
Joey Holden celebrated with team-mates in 2015

He is from Knockmoylan, a townland at the southern end of the parish. The Holden homeplace is like a ship far out at sea, last house before the boundary. A field away is Knockbrown, part of Mullinavat. Four fields the other way is Keatingstown, part of Aghavillar, Carrickshock’s parish. Nearby is Monarue National School, a small two teacher outfit. Three parishes meet and provide its intake.

Nearly every Ballyhale child attends St Patrick’s NS, which sits on the outskirts of the village. Coincidentally or not, three primary schools were amalgamated into this one in September 1971, four months before the club was founded. The amalgamation significantly strengthened parish identity.

Holden is an exception: “Because we went to Monarue, we used to have to go play with Carrickshock at primary school level. Then, that evening, you’d be back down in the field, training with Ballyhale Shamrocks at U11. So it was a bit funny.

“You’d be playing with some lads on a Tuesday with the schools, Carrickshock versus Ballyhale, and then you’d be playing against them on a Saturday with the club, Ballyhale versus Carrickshock.

“I’m still best friends with a few of them. Luke Gaule, who went on to hurl Senior with Carrickshock, is only up the road.”

Reid is from Kiltorcan, a patch of higher ground to the east of Ballyhale village.

His career sparked from the start. A 16-year-old goalkeeper at senior in 2004, he went out the field the following season.

I was just delighted to be on the same team as Henry [Shefflin] and Bob [Aylward],” he says.

Still a minor, he made the Kilkenny U21 panel in 2005. The senior call came in 2007.

He came on a sub against Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland final. Hurler of the Year in 2015, TJ Reid looked unmarkable at times during Kilkenny’s recent run to winning the NHL Final. These days, he appears not so much to be running as bounding.

Is being from Ballyhale an advantage where Kilkenny is concerned?

Reid nods: “Yes, you are competing, because the club is senior, at that higher level. You’re usually getting to county finals, being seen more. If you get to Croke Park for a Club All-Ireland final, you’re being seen more again. Brian [Cody] would be looking at whether you can handle the big occasions.”

Ballyhale Shamrocks celebrate their All-Ireland club title win in 2015
Ballyhale Shamrocks celebrate their All-Ireland club title win in 2015

This exposure is useful but not the main boon: “It also helps massively that you’re playing with such good players around you, which means you only have to hurl your own position. Clubs who have only one Kilkenny hurler often expect too much of him. That hurler can end up doing less than he is capable of because of the burden.”

So many ways, these men offer a study in contrast. Joey Holden never featured with Kilkenny, even as a panellist, at minor or U21.

“I do go in for a few trials at U21, but it went nowhere,” Holden recalls. “I just wasn’t up to it, being honest. I just wasn’t that into hurling at the time. Horse riding and other things came first. Hurling wasn’t my number one until later.”

He cannot isloate a moment when a switch got flicked: “It was just that Ballyhale started picking up momentum. I started getting near the team, and then on it. It just started clicking, and I was driven more towards it.

Life is like that, I suppose. You try everything when you are younger, and then certain things stick on.

I was a selector with Ballyhale Shamrocks under Tommy Shefflin’s management in 2012. A key part of winning that senior title? Moving Joey Holden to centre back, where he excelled. With the club, Holden went to full back in 2014 and captained Kilkenny, from that position, to 2015’s triumph.

There was a massive overreaction within the county when Tipperary filleted the Kilkenny defence in 2016’s All-Ireland final. If Joey Holden, marking Séamus Callanan, had a chastening day, so did nearly everyone else.

The irony is that a performance on Callanan, back in 2012, decided Ballyhale Shamrocks’ management on Holden as centre-back. Early in the year, the club took on Drom-Inch in the St Molleran’s Tournament. Although Callanan scored two brilliant goals, we were impressed by Holden’s coolness and resolve.

“I do remember that game in Carrick [on Suir],” he says. “I was going for a ball, out on the sideline, and I said to myself: I probably shouldn’t go for this… But I went for it, and Seamie just played me off, caught the ball, and by the time I turned around he nearly had it already stuck in the net.

“I learned from that ball. I didn’t think about over much, but I did say to myself: next time, I’ll know what to do, in that kind of situation. I’ll be a bit more cagey.”

Home ground itself is an education. As Holden details: “There’s always a chance to learn. For club nights, you have to mark Henry, mark TJ, mark Colin. You have to find ways of stopping forwards hurling. It’s not all about getting the ball first off, sometimes.

“Maybe get it to the floor and try to outscrap them down there. You try to give yourself some form of an advantage, however you do it.”

For all TJ Reid’s early promise, there was a sense in which his career had stalled by his mid-twenties. He is candid on this front, instancing a turning point: “It was a game in Kilkenny training, 15 on 15, around 2011 or 2012. I just wasn’t properly involved at all. It was one of those days when you’re running into space, but you’re running away from the ball, more so.

“Then it was my decision to chase a lad 20 yards, to get in a hook, and then I won the ball. I was marking JJ [Delaney] at the time, out wing forward. And for the next 40 minutes in training I dominated JJ.

But it was the hook, not a point, that turned my performance. It was actually getting stuck in, going after the ball rather than away from the ball, that made a change.

A penny dropped and became a doubloon. As Reid puts it: “Whenever you’re not on the ball, and the ball’s not breaking your way, sometimes the best way to get going is to win a dirty ruck. You get adrenalin off that as well. Sometimes a hook or a block might get you more involved in the game than a score does.

“Maybe, when I was starting off, I was looking for the handy score, the nice point and what not, instead of chasing a lad 40 yards. You know in your own head whether you’re properly involved, scores or no scores. You can’t cod your own head.”

Galway’s destruction of Kilkenny in the first half of 2012’s Leinster final remains a fresh scar. Reid got dropped for the subsequent All-Ireland quarter-final with Limerick but steadied himself, amid the disappointment, and schooled himself for a new approach.

He recollects: “You have to try and be consistent over the whole game, the full 70 minutes. You can’t be flying for one ten minutes and then missing for the next ten, admiring yourself.

“When you’re a young lad, your dream is to score lovely points over the shoulder and what not. The hard work comes last. I had to learn that lesson, and to adapt to it.”

His first All-Star followed in late 2012. Since then, TJ Reid has been high among Ireland’s finest hurlers. Right now, he is considered the finest, a captivating amalgam of power and skill.

Club hats on, these men are excited about medium term prospects. Ballyhale Shamrocks augmented victory at Minor A in 2016 with victory at U21 A in 2017.

He enthuses: “It’s great to see two wins in an A grade competition, and getting over a strong city club like James Stephens in both of them. It was something special. I saw men in their seventies, with tears in their eyes, on the pitch after the U21 Final. That’s something nearly unique.”

Reid sees past enriching present: “With a club, the young lads look to the older lads. For me growing up, Henry was massive. The fact that he was representing Kilkenny was massive, which sows a seed. All these young Ballyhale lads are in the same position because the club still has players representing Kilkenny.”

Holden expands: “Where your club is concerned, the younger lads excite you more, because you know so much about them already. You’ve probably been watching them since U8. At county level, you might know little enough about the lads who come in.

Especially if their club is not senior, you might only have seen them hurl once or twice.”

He sees present enriching future: “It’s exciting for us, as older players, to have a fresh crop arriving into the dressing room. There’s as much chance of them improving us as we improving them. It might mean being strong enough to win another senior title.”

Those club challenges are for next autumn. Right now, it is Kilkenny’s time. The Leinster Championship, recast as a round robin system, begins tomorrow afternoon.

As a player, I don’t look too far ahead,” Holden stresses. “That’s the management’s job. For the players, it’s all about setting your own ambitions, training session by training session. That’s the challenge ahead of us. It’s different to other years, maybe, as a structure. But Congress does what Congress does. Players are there to hurl, not to make new rules.

He believes some comment misses the point: “But how different will it be, really? It’s still playing the top hurling teams in serious matches. The core challenge is still the same: wearing the Kilkenny jersey, if you get one, and beating the top teams.”

Reid agrees: “Not that much has changed. You get a text for training and you turn up. Every season is based on that.”

There is a natural curiosity about certain aspects. Holden notes: “I’ve never actually been at a match in Salthill, let alone played there. So that will be a new experience.”

Reid takes up this angle: “The atmosphere in Wexford Park for the league semi-final was absolutely electrifying. The home crowd seemed right up against us. You’re bringing that Croke Park atmosphere on All-Ireland final day to a much smaller ground.”

Reid with former club and county team-mate Henry Shefflin
Reid with former club and county team-mate Henry Shefflin

Yet he acknowledges unfolding difficulties: “For us, at intercounty, it’s great, lots of games. But for club players it’s a big problem, being stuck waiting months for a game.”

Reid glosses: “Anything new is going to take a while to settle down. The danger with the club players is that you could lose some of them. You need at least 30 on a panel, for 15 on 15 games in training. Player number 30 is an important player too. You have to be very careful of him, same as with everyone else. If a lad has a mortgage and kids, is he going to hang around for four months in the summer?”

Here is the nub: “You could lose those players. There could be a knock on problem there for clubs.”

Another day’s work. A trip to Parnell Park welcomes the summer. They seem relaxed, after a productive spring.

“The vibes with Kilkenny are very much positive,” TJ Reid says, intriguingly quiet in tone and yet emphatic.

• For full details of this Ballyhale Shamrocks initiative, see their official website: www.hurlingwiththestars.com.

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