Kilkenny hurling sensation, TJ Reid talks about the rich tradition of hurling in his home village, Ballyhale, that has produced some the game’s greatest and the most successful hurling club in the history of the GAA. TJ features in AIB’s The Toughest Summer, a documentary which will tell the story of Summer 2020 which saw an unprecedented halt to Gaelic Games.
I don’t like looking back on the past too much. It’s done and dusted. You can’t spend your time looking back. You need to look at the present and what’s in front of you.
That said, 2015 will always be a special year for me. The best year of my life.
I captained my club, Ballyhale Shamrocks, on the day we beat Kilmallock in the AIB All-Ireland Club Championship final on St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park.
I used to love getting to play on that particular date because it meant so much to me and my family. To see Croke Park take that away from us, I was effing and blinding them.
To captain your club to an All-Ireland is special but for me, to do it on that day is particularly precious. Any day we get the St Patrick’s Day win is important to our family because it’s our mother’s anniversary.
It was very emotional. My brothers were all on the field with me. Richie was in goal, I was half-forward, Eoin was full-forward, Patrick was corner-forward. It was a real family occasion.
The night before the game Patrick had his first baby boy on the anniversary of my mother. Patrick got taken off and he was half annoyed with himself because it’s a club All-Ireland and you don’t want to be taken off, but he was up until all hours with his new baby. Afterwards he was able to celebrate our mother’s anniversary, a club All-Ireland and the birth of his son.
My mother passed away in 2008 following a battle with cancer. We’ve a picture at home from the 2007 All Ireland when Tom Coogan and Henry Shefflin were captains and my mother is standing behind me that St Patrick’s Day.
I went on to win the All-Ireland with Kilkenny in 2015 and I was awarded Hurler of the Year. It was a fantastic year. But it has its place. It’s done. Time to look forward.
”There is an expectation in Kilkenny. We should be competing every year. There are no excuses.
It’s amazing how quickly the years go by. It flies.
It’s five years since Kilkenny lifted the Liam MacCarthy cup. That’s frightening. We’ve definitely been competing since then, but we’ve not gotten over the line.
In 2016 we were going for three-in-a-row only for a fantastic Tipperary team beat us. Then last year they beat us again. Sport is sport but you only really remember the days that you win. You can win as many league games as you want but people will only remember the All-Ireland Final days.
When you’re playing on the day you only hear and see what’s in front of you. Inside that bubble you don’t be listening to what the media or the public are saying about you.
You’re concentrating on you and on your team to get them over the line. At the end of the day we should be winning as much as we can, when we can.
If you look at any successful club or county, there’s a foundation there. For me, that was primary school in Ballyhale.
I remember, every day, every lunchtime, any chance we got, it was hurling, hurling, hurling. Joe Dunphy was the principal in Ballyhale for 30 years and he was very much a big factor in it. All the players that went through the school were drilled in both hurling and football. A lot of hard work went into that.
Hurling was the heartbeat of the school. The school was the heartbeat of Ballyhale Shamrocks.
The likes of Henry, Cha Fitzpatrick, the Fennellys and myself all graduated from that primary school. It very much instilled a competitive streak in us early on.
We’d the Country Cup and county championships back then, and your own little class competition as well where, at the end of the year, you’d get your trophy and your little medals.
Of course, then you move on to secondary school and the years of foundation and hard work come to fruition. A bunch of players came up along at the right time and we were very successful together.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s they’d won club and county medals, and when they retired they got involved in the training of the Under 14s, Under 16s, minors and seniors, and developed a good group of players.
We were players who wanted success. We were players who went on to play for Kilkenny.
The likes of Henry, Aidan Cummins, Michael Fennelly, Eoin Reid, Cha, those guys then brought that level of standards from intercounty back to Ballyhale. Then myself and Joey Holden got involved with Kilkenny, and obviously then that transpired back down to the club to ensure the standards of training were good enough.
When you get a taste of success you want more.
It’s always good to have people involved in the county set up because you bring back standards and you want to see the club be as successful.
There are two things that can happen; you can become complacent or you can maintain that level of expectation and drive toward that level of commitment every year.
You need a manager to instill that mentality in players. You need players to want to win, to succeed and most importantly, to want to come to training.
”If you don’t want to come to training, then you’re not going to come in the right frame of mind. All it takes is one bad egg to ruin the whole bunch. If your attitude is off, don’t come.
That’s one thing our leaders instilled in us. Come to training with the right attitude and give it everything you have.
Henry was a real leader that way.
As a person he would always be someone you’d look up to because you’d learn a lot from him, especially on the field. Off the field, his work ethic comes through. To see what he puts himself through to be right for games, to come back from two cruciate injuries. He’s a no-nonsense guy.
Henry enjoys his few pints but when you come to training you give it your all and you compete. No bullshit.
It was great to have him as the person who held our standards accountable.
”When you’re ten years of age in the back garden you’re pretending to be DJ Carey or Ciarán Carey and all these legends of the game. But Henry was King.
I’m lucky to come from the same parish as him. I looked up to him. As he’s a bit older than us we listened. He held us accountable for our standards.
Our families would have been friends. Henry had a family pub in Ballyhale and there was a handball alley at the back, so after mass me and my brothers would go in there playing soccer with him and his brothers Paul, Tommy, and John. So, from a young age, there was always that link.
Between training with club and county, and then having him as a manager the last two years, this is the first time in a long, long time that I’m not seeing him on a regular basis.
Of course, when he became manager of Ballyhale Shamrocks, friendship goes out the window. He’d have to tell me off a few times and that’s grand.
He walks his dog near the house and he’d often call in for tea when he’s passing. We’ve a great relationship.
It’s nice to hear people compare us and all that talk, but you’re only as good as your last game. It inspires you to go on and achieve more in a way, but I don’t feel any pressure to fill his boots.
I think we’re so lucky to have GAA and sport in Ireland. It’s so unique.
We lost our teammates Eoin Doyle in 2018 and Eugene Alyward a year later, in tragic circumstances. When it happened, we had sport to bring us together. Without sport or the club, it could have gone very differently for some lads.
One death is bad. Two is brutal. It is a dreadful place to be.
One minute you’re heading to training and marking these guys and the next you’re watching their coffins being carried through Ballyhale and the streets are lined with everyone in their colours. The church is packed with your teammates shedding tears. It’s just horrible.
The two families would have been very involved in the club when the bereavements happened. They were the number 16 jersey for Ballyhale Shamrocks.
Those kinds of things do inspire you to go on and get into that extra gear to do what’s right for the club and to honour their memory.
We brought their jerseys with us. It’s signed by all the players. We’ll always do something to keep them involved in some way. It’s important to not forget.
The after effects of dealing with loss is the hardest part. I know myself from losing my own mother. Sport is amazing that way, in that there’s a group of people there that will put their arms around you and look after you and take you in.
”As a club, we decided to go on and cherish those moments together. We decided to lift the club for Eugene and Eoin’s families. Ballyhale Shamrocks meant that we were together in spirit.
After we buried Eugene, we had one week before the county quarter final against Clara. That was a bad week. The preparation wasn’t the best coming into that game. We weren’t training. I think we only met once that week.
Before the game, we had the wrong attitude. It wasn’t a controlled energy. It was a false sense of fire. But players were just reacting to the circumstances.
A few minutes into the game lads were bickering. We were fouling. We were too aggressive. It was just all raw emotion.
I remember being six points down at half time in that game and then Clara got two points, so we were eight down. The easiest thing to do that day was to drop the heads and make excuses but we didn’t. We lifted our heads, our spirits and the camaraderie and we turned the game around. The crowd got behind us and the players rose to the challenge and we went on to beat Clara.
If we’d have lost that game people would have said, ‘Look, they’re only after burying Eugene.’ and the community would have accepted that excuse. They wouldn’t have been hard on us because of what happened. We didn’t want excuses, we had to act.
I don’t know any other team that would have turned the game around like that especially after the week we’d had. The players just responded with character and it was unbelievable. I’ll never forget it.
When we were doing the warm down, we could see the Alyward family over in a huddle crying together and that just tells you what it means.
I was a sub goalie for the seniors up until I was 17. I just wanted to play so when they asked me to go in goal, I didn’t hesitate.
I’d a good puck out and good hands and that’s all I needed. I was a goalie on the Feile na nGael team when I was ten and for the Under 14 Kilkenny development squad.
If I was a bit young for the squad I’d go in goals. Obviously then, I got a bit taller and faster and I lost the puppy fat and earned my place as an outfield player. At 17, I was midfield for Ballyhale Shamrocks.
Looking back, I’d say, TJ, keep it simple. Do the basics. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in areas where you need to improve. There are people that want you to improve so let them help you.
Having a good attitude and a positive mentality will carry you a long way. You need to be coachable. Leave the ego behind. If you’ve a manager criticising you about something you can’t say, ‘F you. I’m better than you. I know more than you.’ You’ll get nowhere doing that.
”Have a dream. Protect it as much as you can. If you want to be the next whoever, you’ve some decisions to make in terms of training and commitment. When you play for Kilkenny, you do whatever you can to keep that dream a reality.
Enjoy the process.
At this age, I know I don’t have much longer left in the game, so I appreciate it more. I’m still loving it. I appreciate the people around me and the work they do that’s sometimes taken for granted. The day you’re complaining about going training or for a gym session, that’s when you know that you have to call it a day.
Give me a season in June or October, I don’t care. I’m just so grateful to have an All-Ireland championship this year.
People might complain that we don’t get a break, but if we’re training for another All-Ireland Final in November or December, isn’t that a great place to be?
TJ Reid features in AIB’s The Toughest Summer, a documentary which will tell the story of Summer 2020 which saw an unprecedented halt to Gaelic Games.
The series is made up of five webisodes as well as a full-length feature documentary to air on RTÉ One in late August. TJ Reid features in the first webisode that will be available on AIB’s YouTube channel from 1pm on Thursday 23rd July at www.youtube.com/aib.
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