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'He has the most undervalued currency in the GAA' - What makes TJ Reid an all-time great?

What is it that makes TJ Reid great? Stars from across the sporting sphere have their say.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE TYPICAL TJ moment isn’t his serene presence standing ominously over a placed ball. It’s not a score of any kind, despite the fact he is just one point from overtaking Conor Cooney as the championship’s top scorer.

For Paddy Stapleton, the passage that reflects Reid’s real greatness came midway through the first half of their semi-final victory over Clare.

“Once the ball is in his hand, you are in trouble,” the Tipperary All-Ireland winner explains.

“He invariably dummies a pass. Or he turns you. Or drags the defender out and pops it away.

“He went up for a high ball with (Paul) Flanagan. Whatever position he was in, Adrian Mullen knew he was going to win the ball long before it was in his hand. He was gone up the field, not even waiting for the break. He knew he’d get the pass as well because TJ is not greedy.

“I think that is why he gets so much space. He might leave it off just as easy as he’ll put it over. Even Tony Kelly, who is great, but you’ve a fair idea if he gets it, he will take off. It wouldn’t take away from him.

“TJ doesn’t have that pace. If he shapes to pass, you have to go and cut that out. He can dummy and go the other way. If he looks like he will shoot, he can turn around and set it out the back. What I like about him, he lets the back decide what he will do. He waits for them to make a decision. Brilliant thanks to slight cuteness.”

His signature move. Standing on the edge of the D waiting for the route one ball driven long. Hurl in his left, catching with his right. The defender stands on the catching side, but if they are an orthodox hurler that forces them to lean across their body with the hurl to compete. 

tj-reid-and-darren-morrissey Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In Croke Park that day, his all-round superb showing was the ultimate standout while simultaneously routine. He notched 0-10. In the first half, Kilkenny’s forwards scored 1-7 from long balls. Reid was responsible for 0-3 of that. They scored 0-3 from turnovers. It was his tackles that led to every single one.

Much has been made of the fact he turns 35 this year. Such longevity should come as no surprise. He has never had any truck for talk of burnout or an immediate tail-off. “Absolute rubbish,” was his assessment when previously asked was it a concern.

Precisely why is the Kilkenny dynamo so widely respected? What is it that elevates him amongst the greatest in the game? He is currently fourth in the all-time scoring record yet amongst his peers, such a tally only scratches the surface.

“TJ is the best because he works the hardest,” says Antrim’s Neil McManus.

“He has the most undervalued currency in the GAA. The experience, his hurling brain. We’ve went so far into the depths of strength and conditioning now that people think ‘he is in his 30s, pretty much done.’

“In all reality, if Cork played Patrick Horgan in the quarter-final against Galway. He contributes and scores those frees. He is so cute and good; they’d have made an All-Ireland semi-final.

“It is such an undervalued commodity. Experience and the smarts that come with it.”

tj-reid-scores-a-long-range-free Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Indulge us. The scoring is obviously impressive. What makes it notable from the perspective of other set-piece specialists?

“His switch form play to free-taking mood,” McManus explains. “When you are fighting for a ball amongst seven or eight people, you need to be madly intense. Ferocious. That comes naturally to most hurlers. But you can’t be in that mindset hitting frees. TJ is one of the best at both. Still the best ball-winner. Still the best free taker.

“It was clear to be seen even in the semi-final, how he could change from flying around one minute to suddenly starting his process. How he goes through a step by step ritual. After he strikes the ball, back to intense. Hurl up and ready to attack any puck that comes near him.”

Reid has always been a colossus for his club Ballyhale yet it took him until 2012 to really ignite his intercounty career. His scoring ability stems from childhood. His hunger for work was forged later. It was Brian Cody’s school of hard knocks that made him what he is today.

Famously, within Kilkenny’s legal system, Reid committed a serious crime in 2012. His lack of effort off the ball was highlighted in a team meeting after the Leinster final. Tackling, then stopping short. 

In more recent interviews, the five-time All-Star expresses pride in play involvements rather than scores or even kilometres covered. Not just working hard, being effective. Mesmerising skill, laser-like free-taking and ball trickery are one thing, not the most important thing. He embodies that mantra. His peers admire him for it.

“He is the most skilful on the field every day,” says Stapleton. “The thing is, he was as skilful back then just he wasn’t playing because he didn’t have the work-rate.

“He works so hard. Against Clare he was hurling well, winning primary balls, scoring. On top of that, he dispossessed Clare backs for direct scores. The best players, the harder they work the more they are involved. They are around the ball; they are harder to mark because they aren’t sitting in the corner.

“It clicked with him years ago. The gym helped that as well. The stronger he got the better engine he had and the more he could get around the field.”

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The previous generation applauds his adaptability. A wizard and a workhouse. “There is not a forward in Ireland to touch the genius of TJ Reid, a pleasure to watch him,” Offaly All-Ireland winner Daithí Regan said in 2018.

“TJ Reid is the reason I watch hurling,” Seán Óg Ó hAilpín declared at the time.

Reid is one of the great survivors of Kilkenny hurling. In the 2011 final he came on as a sub, the first player in history to win three All-Irelands off the bench. According to GAA Insights, Kilkenny’s top scorer is also second in shot assists, laying on 2-13 this year. 

The next crop marvel at his appetite.  

“He is top class in nearly every aspect of the game skill, speed, power. Even after winning nearly everything there is to win in the game, he still looks hungry to go and win more,”  Laois co-captain and 2022 Fitzgibbon All-Star Podge Delaney tells The42.

Four-time All-Ireland Camogie championship winner Ursula Jacob points to his standards: “He is an intelligent and always sporting warrior who constantly strives for perfection.”

What about outside of hurling?

“Every day he goes out and you think to yourself, ‘how does he make the game of hurling look so easy?’” says Irish boxing Olympian Adam Nolan. “That’s what the greats of the game do I suppose. An immaculate free taker, prolific in the air and most importantly a great man to set up play for his forwards around him.”

What is the first thing that comes to mind for former Kilkenny minor All-Ireland winning captain and current St Kilda AFL footballer Darragh Joyce? 

“He is obviously a physical specimen and that gives him a great advantage, but for me, it’s the stick work. He is a magician with the hurl.”

Scorer, creator, tackler, leader. He enters every game with an almighty to-do list. The last time Kilkenny met Limerick, Reid channelled all of that. It was a Man of the Match performance. Post-match he distilled it down to his major components. 

“Today was just about pure savage work rate from all the players, subs and everyone. We didn’t score as much as we’d have liked to. But it was about the doggedness, the effort, the hooks, the blocks, the flicks, the catches.” 

No mention of his 0-8. That was low on his list of priorities, he had other duties to perform first. TJ Reid is the centrepiece. The true scale of his place in this team will only become apparent when he is no longer there to fill it. 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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