Kilkenny still looking to veteran Reid to deliver when it counts

Clare have been well warned that the phenomenal Ballyhale sharpshooter remains the focal point of the Cats’ attack

The second half of the Leinster final was just over three minutes old when Adrian Mullen collected a low skidder from Richie Reid.

Galway goalkeeper Éanna Murphy had launched a loose one down on top of the Kilkenny centre back and he had time to pick out Mullen, who in turn had time to flick a neat score over his shoulder from 40 metres out. Kilkenny 0-13, Galway 0-11, with 38:16 on the stadium clock.

What happened next summed up both the exact reason why Kilkenny probably won’t win the All-Ireland and the only real argument for suggesting they might. For the rest of the half, none of the Kilkenny starting forwards scored from play.

After that Mullen point, their next score from play didn’t come until the fourth minute of injury-time, when substitute Pádraig Walsh came off the shoulder to collect from John Donnelly. Tot it all up and they went a full 35 minutes without a point that wasn’t a placed ball.

And yet they won a Leinster final by five points. Not alone that, they did it comfortably. They never lost their lead – in fact, after Mullen put them two ahead on 38 minutes, Kilkenny kept at least that size of a cushion all the way to the end. The one and only reason they were able to do so was an all-time free-taking exhibition by TJ Reid.

Kilkenny scored 11 points in that second half – Reid potted eight of them from placed balls, including seven in a row after Mullen’s point. Despite shooting into Hill 16 with a stiff breeze coming against him, Reid didn’t miss a single one. Three of them were from behind the Kilkenny 65, one was from midfield. Seven frees and a 65, all converted at a time when Kilkenny were unable to fashion any other highway or byway to the Galway posts.

Reid will be 35 in November. He made his Kilkenny debut in 2008, when Mullen, Cian Kenny and Eoin Cody were all only seven- or eight-years-old. Earlier this summer, he became just the fourth hurler to pass the 500-point mark in championship scoring – he currently sits on 28-459 (543 points). Up ahead are Henry Shefflin on 27-484 (565) and Joe Canning on 27-486 (567), with Patrick Horgan top of the shop on 22-516 (582).

The Leinster final was Reid’s 72nd championship game, moving him past Shefflin at the top of the Kilkenny appearances list. While it is slightly bewildering that he is still the focal point of the Kilkenny attack, it is hardly surprising either. If he never pucked a ball in open play, his free-taking and catching alone would be reason enough to keep him around.

He caught three high balls in that second half against Galway, fashioning two half-goal chances and winning yet another free that he converted for yet another point. The joy Wexford got out of the Clare full-back line in the quarter-final will have been duly noted on his couch in Ballyhale.

All the same, it has to be a little discomfiting for Kilkenny that he was their only reliable attacker in that Leinster final. It wasn’t as if the other forwards were dominating their men and drawing frees for Reid to cash in on – most of the fouls were in midfield or in the Kilkenny half. Cody got fouled for one close in, Mossy Keoghan was bundled over for one just inside the 45. Otherwise, it was Reid himself who had to find a way.

That said, it isn’t all on him all of the time. One germ of promise for Kilkenny is the fact that they aren’t relying on Reid for goals to quite the same extent as they had been. They’ve had nine different goalscorers in this championship – by a distance their widest spread of green flag merchants since 2012. Even allowing for the fact that fill-yer-boots group games against Laois and Westmeath account for half their goals this summer, that’s still evidence of improvement in an area that was badly lacking.

In 10 campaigns since the start of 2013, Kilkenny have scored 79 goals in championship. Of those, Reid is responsible for 25. Colin Fennelly scored nine of them and Richie Hogan pitched in with seven. Tellingly, Richie Power is next on the list with five, despite not having started a game for Kilkenny since the 2014 All-Ireland final. Ger Aylward and Walter Walsh both have five across that spell as well. That’s a lot of old faces with their picture still up on the wall.

Gradually, however, the new breed is asserting itself. Reid accounts for 31 per cent of Kilkenny’s goal tally since 2013, which is still a ludicrous number for one player. But it is at least diminishing. Across the eight campaigns between 2013 and 2020, that number was close to 36 per cent.

He has been the highest Kilkenny goalscorer either jointly or on his own in seven of the last eight championships. This year, for the first time since 2016, someone else is at the head of affairs – Martin Keoghan has three goals to Reid’s two.

Not before time, Reid’s supporting cast is finding its goalscoring rhythm. Keoghan has scored four championship goals in his career so far, Mullen, Cody and Billy Ryan have three apiece. You wouldn’t call them TJ Reid numbers just yet but that’s not the point. The point is that every goal they score is one Reid doesn’t have to. The days of him being on the hook for 80 per cent of their goals in a season – as he was in 2017 – are fading from view.

As well they should. Impressive as Reid’s pre-eminence in the Kilkenny attack is, it surely ought to have begun to erode by now. It’s not as if the talent isn’t there – Cody (twice) and Mullen have won the last three Young Hurler of the Year awards between them, after all.

In the quarter of a century since the award began, this is the only time it has gone to the same county three years in a row. Reid shouldn’t be carrying them in his 15th season in a Kilkenny jersey; it should be the other way around.

There’s a little bit of history repeating here, all the same. For Mullen and Cody now, see Reid and Hogan circa 2013-2014. For Reid, see Shefflin. It’s all very well saying the others need to stand up and be The Man, but what if The Man is still there, doing his thing?

It’s hard to fill a vacancy if you can’t convince yourself it exists. It can’t be a coincidence that Hogan was Hurler of the Year in 2014, when Shefflin’s role was reduced to that of a squad member. Or that Reid took the award in 2015, the first season after Shefflin had retired.

Writing in The Irish Times last year, Jackie Tyrrell made the point that since the arrival of Hogan and Reid in 2007, Kilkenny hadn’t had what he called a ‘WOW player’ arrive on the scene.

“One or two used to come through the system every two to three years,” Tyrrell wrote. “Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Cha Fitzpatrick and Richie Power, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan. Players who came in and made the senior players catch each other’s eye and nod. But we haven’t had one of them enter a Kilkenny set-up in over 13 years.”

Is Mullen that player? Is Cody? Both have had their moments in this championship, with Mullen’s repurposing as an attacking midfielder having borne fruit – he goes into the weekend as the team’s highest scorer from play with 0-20.

Cody is next on the list with 2-9, although he offered very little in the Leinster final. Maybe most damning of all that night was the fact that wing back Paddy Deegan was Kilkenny’s second highest scorer from play, landing two first-half points with the wind at his back.

No, when the fat is in the fire against Clare, the evidence of the past few seasons tells us that Kilkenny will continue to look for Reid to see them through it. At this level, that shouldn’t be enough to win an All-Ireland semi-final. But can you say he won’t do it? Go on, dare you to.

Thought so.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times