‘TJ is just an absolute genius to watch’ – The greatest club hurling forward of them all?

Source: The42

WHERE IS BEST to start?

Back to October 2004, when the 16-year-old goalkeeper helped his club take the reigning Kilkenny and Leinster champions O’Loughlin Gaels to a county quarter-final replay?

Or maybe more recently, that remarkable feat of escapology as the 34-year-old forward smashing in the last-gasp goal that delivered a sensational ending to an All-Ireland semi-final?

Two afternoons that have bookended a glittering hurling career for TJ Reid in Ballyhale Shamrocks colours.

Tomorrow he steps out in Croke Park, bidding for a 6th All-Ireland senior club hurling medal. Apply some context. Birr and Portumna with four titles apiece, are the clubs closest to that figure.

Reid’s brother Eoin and Colin Fennelly are within touching distance of that personal feat as well, but TJ has both started and scored in the previous five finals, since the 2007 national announcement when he torched the Loughrea defence and rifled home 2-2.

After years adorning the Croke Park stage, he considers to exert a seismic influence on the club hurling landscape.

And yet three weeks ago in Thurles with the game sinking deep into injury-time, that great winning run looked on the cusp of ending, when he sized up that free to the right of the Killinan End goal.

“He was just walking around, ready to take it and everyone knew what he was going to try and do,” recalls Liam Fennelly, the Kilkenny and Ballyhale playing great.

“We all knew he was going to hit it hard, but I think we were a small bit surprised ourselves that it went into the net.

“Sure, he’s unbelievable really.”

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The TG4 footage of the bullet Reid unleashed to the net is not far off 300,000 views on Twitter. He talked after the game of leaving his hurley in a bucket of water the night before to give the bas extra weight and how that facilitated the purity of his strike.

63 nóim@BallyhaleGAA 2–15@StThomassHC 0-20

CÚL EILE AG TJ!!!@BallyhaleGAA HAVE WON IT!!!!@GAA_BEO

BEO/LIVE AR @TG4TV pic.twitter.com/NcnNOnfM8i

— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) January 23, 2022

“You’re thinking is he a bit far out? Is the angle too narrow?” says Brian Hogan, Reid’s former Kilkenny team-mate.

“How many times do we see the last minute of a game and you’ve got a free, a sea of bodies and it ricochets off two or three lads and the game peters out?

“I’m not going to lie and say I knew he was going to score it.

“But I’ve been on the receiving end, I’ve seen him do stuff like that.

“With TJ there’s always a chance.”

*****

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

For Ballyhale Shamrocks, TJ Reid has lined out in 25 senior hurling championship finals – 13 in Kilkenny, 7 in Leinster and 5 on the All-Ireland stage.

He has won every Leinster and All-Ireland club decider he has played in. In the local domain he has enjoyed nine Kilkenny victories, endured one draw (2011) and suffered three defeats. The only county final he missed was 2012 through injury, the legacy of a broken kneecap suffered in the All-Ireland against Galway.

Reid has got on the scoresheet in all 25 of those finals. Last December’s Leinster decider against Clough-Ballacolla was the only time he was scoreless from play. He has been the game’s top scorer in 11 of those finals, three times on All-Ireland day when the pressure and the expectation tends to swell up around him.

“The first final against Loughrea, he was exceptional,” says Liam Fennelly.

“Look from there, being honest he’s absolutely spectacular to watch. He’s unbelievably powerful under the ball. He has every skill of the game you can ask for.

“Being a left-hander, often they don’t look as poised as the right-hander, but he’s a spectacular citeog hurler really to watch.”

Where does he rank then in the club hurling pantheon?

If the criteria is narrowed to forwards and focused on the era since the inception of the All-Ireland club championships in 1971, a year before Ballyhale Shamrocks came into existence, then Reid is right up there.

Ray Cummins and Jimmy Barry-Murphy shone with Blackrock and St Finbarr’s during their national triumphs in the ‘70s. The Fennelly clan was synonymous with Ballyhale’s first drive for success.

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A couple of Galway sharpshooters have stood up.

Eugene Cloonan struck 1-34 in four All-Ireland finals, winning three of them with Athenry between 1997 and 2001.

Joe Canning is a contemporary of Reid’s. He played in five deciders with Portumna and won four, amassing 1-47 in those games. Even in defeat he was magnificent, putting on an exhibition in knocking over 0-12 when losing to Ballyhale in 2010.

Closer to home to Reid, there is an obvious comparison.

“Henry brought it to a new level and then to think that you’d have a forward like TJ coming on behind, you just don’t believe that could happen,” says Fennelly.

“The argument now is between them in the local public houses. Just spectacular forwards, hurlers and individuals. They’ve brought so much to the game.”

Hogan fronted up against both Shefflin and Reid in the club arena, while sharing a county dressing-room with them on a long-term basis. There are similarities in their styles of play.

TJ Reid and Brian Hogan in opposition in 2010.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

“I would have marked them both. They’ll rotate, they’ll move. Henry would be centre-forward, he’d move out wing-forward, he actually played midfield in one county final.
“TJ’s just a really intelligent player. Very similar to Henry. You think you have him for 40, 50 minutes, and then it’s just two minutes and all of a sudden, he’s done the damage.”

Last November’s county final was a case in point. Hogan was in the stand, urging on his O’Loughlin Gaels club-mates and at various stages, felt they were putting the squeeze on Ballyhale.

But just as the grip was about to tighten, their opponents wriggled free, the revival encapsulated by the two goals created by Reid.

“Huw Lawlor had a massive game and TJ was very quiet. You’re looking at it, thinking we’re doing everything right. But TJ dropped out deep, out to midfield and his own half-back line, picking up some ball. That ask questions then, do you follow him and leave a big hole? Or do you hold a line?

“He’s such a clever hurler, such a good distributor of the ball. His head is up the whole time, he’s sizing up what’s on.”

*****

In the Kilkenny camp, his career had an initial slow-burning feel to it. Dazzling with his cameo off the bench in the 2008 All-Ireland final destruction of Waterford.

Thereafter solidifying a place in the Kilkenny team proved difficult and by mid-summer 2012 he was considering a county exit, the guidance of Shefflin proving pivotal in coaxing him to stay put.

“He came in that day in 2008 and got four points out of the blue, one touch hurling, in the hand, over the bar,” recalls Fennelly.

“From 2012 onwards he was the mainstay in the team. Why he didn’t come in earlier, there was a lot of discussion in Kilkenny about that. I suppose he probably was the type of player that got the ball and it depended on his ability to get his score.

“Brian added the other parts of the game – team play, bringing other people into the game, work-rate. I think it took about three years to get that right under Brian. Then once that was part of his gameplan, he had everything.”

Kilkenny’s 1992 All-Ireland winning captain Liam Fennelly.

Source: James Meehan/INPHO

The club game helped Reid advertise his talents. Ballyhale had been in the doldrums for a club with their history but ended a 15-year wait for a senior crown in 2006. That was the beginning of the modern empire they have created, kick-starting four-in-a-row.

Reid was operating just before his 19th birthday for the first of those victories, that string of successes got him noticed.

“The first couple of county finals he played in, I won’t say he was running the show, but he stood out,” says Hogan.

“Henry was in his pomp, Fenno and Cha and the lads were all on the team. TJ was the guy that was causing a lot of the damage, shooting the lights out at the age of 19, 20.

“TJ didn’t care who he was marking, who he was playing against, just hurled as if he was out in the back field. It was the same when he came in with Kilkenny, he just wanted to go hurl.

“Before he nailed down a position on the senior squad, there was a few years he was the best club hurler in the county. Himself and Richie Hogan would have come in to Kilkenny, you’d know of them. Richie was the slightly bigger name but you could see straight away the ability TJ had and the confidence.

“Henry being his own club man, he’d know him. He’d be telling Henry that he should be the free-taker, in a joking, messing way. Then he’d put the ball down and stick it over from 50 yards. This is a lad of 21 but he had that kind of confidence, you knew the occasion would never really faze him.”

***

For all his prowess with Kilkenny, that has yielded the seven All-Irelands and five All-Stars, the club game has been a core element of TJ’s hurling.

His father Sean claimed an All-Ireland U21 medal in 1974 with his four sons – Patrick, Eoin, TJ and Richie – all contributing to the club’s modern success story. From their home in Kiltorcan, they have been integral in shaping Ballyhale’s superpower status.

On final day, Reid has frequently delivered. In Kilkenny there was 0-10 against St Martin’s in 2007, the six white flags raised from play in the 2009 decider against James Stephen’s, another 0-10 haul against Clara in 2014 and the 1-10 tally to help break Bennettsbridge’s resistance in 2018.

“He has unbelievable power in his stroke,” says Fennelly.

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“If you watch him hitting the ball, he reminds me of a tennis player taking a serve. Everything goes, the whole body is striking it. TJ is just an absolute genius to watch.

“Taking a free, the trajectory he hits, the ball is never affected by the wind, he has an unbelievable shot. From out the field, he’s so accurate.”

TJ Reid.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Different aspects jump out for Hogan. His ball-winning ability.

“In Nowlan Park, there was a league match one day against Limerick. Dan Morrissey and one of the other half-backs. It was 2 v 1 and they’re big guys, but TJ was just able to control the ball on the hurl over their heads and actually turn with the ball, nearly all in one motion. You step back and go, that’s special.”

There was Kilkenny training sessions which would be illuminated by a flash of skill, that captured the range of weapons in his hurling arsenal.

“I know Tommy had great battles with him in training and found him a ferocious guy to mark. I remember one day he got a ball and came in off the new stand side in Nowlan Park. It was one of those training sessions where it was fairly helter-skelter.

“David Herity came out to close the angle, which was the right thing to do, and TJ hit the ball with top spin and he put so much top spin, just literally like a tennis player, he put it up and over Herro and into the goal.

“I just remember going, ‘Holy Christ like.’

“To do that at full pace with lads coming looking for blood, and to have the composure and to be able to execute that, which is incredibly difficult…that was serious.

*****

Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid after the 2015 All-Ireland senior club final.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Reid doesn’t take to the stage in a one-man attacking show. He learned from Shefflin. His brother Eoin has been a constant scoring threat. He has had Colin Fennelly by his side most of the way, the value of input reinforced by the intelligent positioning for that free against St Thomas. Over the last few years, Adrian Mullen and Eoin Cody have emerged up front.

That forward conveyor belt is something Hogan marvels at.

“They’re the envy of every club in the country. Most club sides, you’d kill for one forward. For years we had Gorta (Martin Comerford), that kind of marquee county forward on a club side, which counts for so much.

“Then you have these lads have four county forwards in their club side. They just seem to be able to make forwards and Kilkenny have benefitted for years from that. I don’t know how they do it. Trying to produce a top-class forward, they don’t grow on trees, except down around Knocktopher and Ballyhale.”

Hogan is well-versed in the club hurling game. He reigned in county and provincial finals with O’Loughlin Gaels, discovered the All-Ireland series was a tough nut to crack, and had ferocious local battles with Ballyhale.

“In 2016 (county final), TJ picked up a ball, went straight through the middle and hung a ball to the back of the net. We drove on thankfully that day, it makes it all the sweeter when you’re beating a Shamrocks team that have been dominant.

“It’s incredible what they’ve done. The club championship, it’s a long road in winter. It’s fantastic, the best memories but it’s a long road. You’re hurling all year. There’s a massive respect for them in terms of the consistency.

“TJ never goes through the motions, consistently delivers under pressure. He’s a marked man, he’s taking hardship and still to come up trumps. That separates the good players and the great players, that consistency.”

His own playing days concluded, Liam Fennelly has drawn great enjoyment from watching the rich hurling tradition in Ballyhale and Knocktopher being upheld.

“These boys have won six during TJ’s time. Henry involved in the first three and then you could say the last three, TJ really is the main driving force.

“It’s hard to keep that going in a small parish. But we lost the first one in ’79 and we haven’t lost a final since.

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“So it’s pretty good going.”

Five All-Ireland club finals, stretching back 15 years and a positive outcome each time. Reid has 2-28 to his name from those five games.

Ballygunner in Croke Park tomorrow.

Another chapter to be written.

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