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'You grow up fast when you win a county final' - Chasing his 10th title, 15 years after the first

TJ Reid is hoping to lead Ballyhale Shamrocks to the second four-in-a-row in their history tomorrow.

TOMORROW AFTERNOON, TJ Reid will line out with Ballyhale Shamrocks in the Kilkenny senior hurling championship final.

There’s nothing unusual about that.

pjimage (3) TJ Reid first final appearance for Ballyhale Shamrocks came back in 2006. Source: Inpho

In fact, since he made his debut as a 16-year-old in 2004, Reid has failed to make the senior county final in only four seasons (2004, ’10, ’13 and ’17) during his remarkable career. Appearing in 14 finals before the age of 34 is a stunning feat, particularly in a club championship as competitive as Kilkenny’s.

If Ballyhale are victorious against O’Loughlin Gaels in the 2021 edition, he’ll collect his 10th county medal with the village club. That would be five more than serial winner Henry Shefflin managed during his Hall of Fame career. 

In fact Shefflin had to wait until 2006, when he was 27, for his first championship win with Ballyhale. By that time Reid was already on the scene as a rising star, collecting his first title at 18-years-old.

There’s a neat symmetry with Sunday’s opponents O’Loughlin Gaels and Reid. His first senior medal arrived after beating them in the final 15 years ago. His last defeat in a final came five years ago against the same opposition. 

And he was 16 when he first broke onto the Ballyhale senior team, making his championship bow in a drawn quarter-final with O’Loughlin Gaels as a goalkeeper. The Shamrocks side that afternoon included Shefflin, who scored 1-7, his brother Tommy, Michael Fennelly and TJ’s older brother Eoin, who arrived off the bench in the recent semi-final defeat of James Stephens. 

O’Loughlin’s prevailed in the replay, but young TJ didn’t have to wait long until his first county final. In the 2005 decider, he had just turned 18 when he lined out at midfield and it took him less than five minutes of the showdown with James Stephens to fire over a point.

With Ballyhale trailing by seven at the interval, Reid brought them back into the game with an early second-half goal, finishing as their top-scorer with 1-2. 

A three-point defeat was avenged the following year when Ballyhale ended their 15-year wait for a Kilkenny SHC crown. Lining out at wing-forward, Reid clipped three points to pick up his first medal.

It was a team that featured eight U21s, mainly drawn from Ballyhale’s All-Ireland Féile squad from 1998. That included that year’s Young Hurler of the Year James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and future Hurlers of the Year Fennelly and Reid, who was sub goalkeeper on that Féile team as a 10-year-old. 

Screenshot 2021-11-05 at 16.35.25 Source: Kilkenny People

And so the winning run began. 

TJ and Eoin Reid, plus Colin Fennelly are the sole survivors from that victory 15 years ago. TJ and Fennelly remain central figures in the Shamrocks success story and shutting them down will be to the forefront of the O’Loughlin Gaels minds tomorrow. 

Assuming the role of free-taker at 19, Reid shot 0-10 in the 2007 decider as Ballyhale defeated St Martin’s by 10 points, leaving him as the club’s top-scorer with 0-24. By that stage Fennelly, an unused sub in the 2006 final, shot to prominence with a three-point haul. 

Reid hit two points in the 2008 five-point final win over James Stephens and scored 0-6 the following year versus same opponents as Ballyhale celebrated their fourth title in-a-row. They became the first Kilkenny club side to enjoy such a sustained run of dominance in the county since Carrickshock in the 1940s.

“This is a great bunch of players,” remarked Shefflin to the Kilkenny People afterwards.

“The disappointment of the 2005 county final continues to drive us on. The ’05 loss is still there in the background with us. That is the way it is in sport. The memory, the hurt, doesn’t fade easily.”

Defeat after a replay in the 2011 decider was tough to stomach. To make matters worse, a broken kneecap suffered in the 2012 All-Ireland final playing for Kilkenny meant Reid missed Ballyhale’s success that November in a championship that was run off in five weeks. 

By the time 2014 came around he had assumed club captaincy under Colm Bonnar (the man recently appointed Tipperary manager) and won his fifth county medal. It was his first to win on the field of play in five years.

Employed on a star-studded half-forward line alongside Fitzpatrick and Shefflin, a 10-point haul from Reid helped Ballyhale to a 1-20 to 1-13 win over Clara on the day he turned 27. 

“It was a special day,” a delighted Reid said afterwards. “Celebrating your birthday by lifting the Tom Walsh Cup as captain is something that I’ll look back on in the years to come with great pride. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

Incredibly, Ballyhale arrived into the game as underdogs, something Reid said “gave us a bit more fire in the belly.”

Screenshot 2021-11-05 at 17.33.08 Source: Kilkenny People

It was to be the final club title Reid won as team-mates with Shefflin, but they were to enjoy further success as a player-manager combination. 

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O’Loughlin Gaels consigned Reid to his last defeat in a county final in 2016. Despite his tally of 1-5 from left-half forward, he couldn’t prevent Shamrocks from falling to a four-point defeat in his seventh senior decider.

With Shefflin in charge, Reid posted 1-10 in the 2018 final defeat of Bennettsbridge to claim his sixth medal. From the side that were last crowned county champions in 2014, the squad had undergone a major transformation. Much like Reid’s crew that emerged almost a decade earlier, a new breed emerged to bring hope to Ballyhale. 

“This is a largely young and new team,” Reid told reporters afterwards. “The last time we won was in 2014 and I was captain. We won a club All-Ireland in 2015. I have a picture of that squad. We have 16 players missing today from that picture. 

“That is a huge turnover of players The last few years we were competing, but today this group came of age.

“You grow up fast when you win a county final,” he added.

“All those young lads who were 17 and 18 three years ago are now more experienced and they can have a bright future, if they want it badly enough.”

Reid’s words were prophetic and they added the 2019 title under Shefflin before retaining it under new boss James O’Connor last year.

Tomorrow, they bid to claim the club’s second four-in-a-row.

TJ Reid will be there, driving them on relentlessly. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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