TJ Reid much more than the point of the spear for Kilkenny

Cats in need of another magical display from the gifted Ballyhale stalwart in Wexford

TJ Reid celebrates one of his two goals against Galway at Nowlan Park. Reid is responsible for 56.8 per cent of Kilkenny’s scores so far in the championship. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

TJ Reid celebrates one of his two goals against Galway at Nowlan Park. Reid is responsible for 56.8 per cent of Kilkenny’s scores so far in the championship. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Nobody has ever started a championship the way TJ Reid has begun this one. Not even TJ Reid.

This is the 23rd summer of hurling since the old straight knock-out days were brought to an end in 1996. The 5-35 Reid has already amassed in Kilkenny’s opening three games would be enough to make him overall leading scorer in eight of the 22 seasons that have gone before this one. It would be enough for second place in another six.

The numbers can be a bit blinding but indulge us here for a second. Thus far this summer, Reid is responsible for 56.8 per cent of Kilkenny’s scores. To put that in context, Patrick Horgan is averaging an outlandish 13 points a game so far for Cork and his chunk of their overall total only comes to 42.3 per cent. Aaron Gillane has put up 10 points a game, or just a shade over 36 per cent of Limerick’s number.

It’s not all placed balls either for Reid. Take out frees, penalties and 65s and the Kilkenny centre-forward is still the joint-leading scorer from play in the championship. Both he and Séamus Callanan have put up 3-7 from open play.

His five goals would be enough to make him the leading goalscorer either jointly or on his own in 12 of the past 22 championships. All this after only – and apologies for going all Grandstand vidiprinter here but it feels called for – 3 (THREE) games.

Despite it all, there’s no guarantee it will get Kilkenny anywhere. Defeat at home to Galway last Sunday makes it perfectly feasible that they could go out of the championship tonight in Wexford. Home wins for Dublin and Wexford would leave Kilkenny in fourth place in the Leinster table, making them the odd men out as the others advance.

If it all washed out that way, Reid would likely still win an All Star. Hell, at this rate, you could probably make a case for a Hurler of the Year nomination. We are thoroughly without precedent here.

In his early life as a Kilkenny hurler, TJ Reid was regarded as a bit of a child prodigy. This was not, it’s fair to say, an entirely positive grading. The Brian Cody empire was built on many things but neither children nor prodigies ranked overly high on the list. There were plenty in the county who viewed Reid and Richie Hogan as fully-formed entities upon their arrival on the scene in the mid-2000s, stork-delivered to Cody’s doorstep, bundled up and ready to go. The man in a cap shrugged his shoulders and they had to take a ticket like everybody else.

Michael Fennelly grew up next door to the Reids in Ballyhale. His best friend is TJ’s older brother, Eoin, and they all killed whatever time they had together hurling on the Reid farm. The wide open spaces, the gable walls, the unpredictable bounces thrown up by the land – Fennelly puts them all in the mix that shaped the hurlers they became. But good and all as they were, TJ found a level of skill the rest of them couldn’t access.

A wizard

“He always gets a flick to a ball,” Fennelly says. “I don’t know how he does it. It can throw you when you’re playing against it because there’s always a hurl coming from somewhere and next thing he’d be gone with the ball. He’s very deceiving that way to play against.

“He’s like a wizard with a hurl is the best way I can describe it. You hear people using that phrase but not all hurlers have it. TJ has it, JJ Delaney had it. Getting the hurl in, flicking the ball, flicking it on the ground or in the air. You’re right there, thinking you’re going to grab it yourself and all of a sudden it’s gone and he’s gone after it.

“I’ve seen it so often, it just leaves players puzzled as to what is after happening. The hurl comes in from nowhere. I haven’t come across another player either playing with or against that could do that so often. Maybe only JJ – the two of them are left-handed so possibly that has something to do with it.”

So he was good and he was coming, everyone knew that. Reid won an All-Ireland Under-21 medal in 2006 as an 18-year-old, scoring five points from play in the semi-final against Galway – a game in which he enjoyed himself by flicking a ball over his marker’s head at one point and collecting it unruffled at the other side. It’s not recorded anywhere if he ever tried that in senior training. If he did, he probably didn’t try it twice.

Brian Cody: proved reluctant to avail of Reid’s services until he produced the required workrate. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Brian Cody: proved reluctant to avail of Reid’s services until he produced the required workrate. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Whatever he tried, it didn’t see him fast-tracked in those early seasons. Nothing like it. Reid joined the senior panel in 2007, made a couple of substitute appearances in 2008 and 2009, including the All-Ireland finals both years. He didn’t make a championship start until 2010, by which time he had been put forward as captain for the year by county champions Ballyhale.

It took until that year’s Leinster final win over Galway for him to complete a championship 70 minutes. By that stage, just short of four years had passed since that under-21 game against Galway.

In a way, it was understandable that it had taken so long – this breaking into the Kilkenny forward line in the late 2000s was no picnic. But on the flipside, everyone know Cody’s aversion to a settled team would withstand a nuclear attack. It was an environment where an up-and-coming shaper was always in with a chance.

“People could see he had talent,” says Michael Fennelly. “Everyone could see that. It did take a bit of time for him to get hold of what it takes to be a senior player though. He had the skill but the work-rate, which is what Brian looks for above all, that aspect of it wouldn’t have been in TJ right away.

“Not as much as it should have been or needed to be anyway. When it came to winning one-on-one balls, I’d say he won 80 per cent of them. But the ones that needed to be chased down, he was probably lacking a bit. Maybe he was hard done by a bit as well because it did take him a few years to nail down a position. But his work-rate is phenomenal now, as everyone can see.”

Attack leader

Within the Kilkenny set-up in those early years, Reid was seen as a skilful hurler who didn’t yet realise what it took to play inter-county. As the end began to loom for the greats of the four-in-a-row team, management were only dying for Reid to get it. The ground he had to make up was psychological more than physical. But he had to do it himself. Nobody could do it for him.

He got there gradually. He played his first full 70-minute All-Ireland final in the drawn game against Galway in 2012, a couple of months short of his 25th birthday. He didn’t miss a minute of the 2014 drawn final or replay, by which time he was established as the attack leader. The greats were gone or going, Richie Hogan was Hurler of the Year out in midfield, it was time. If not him, who? If not then, when?

He was Hurler of the Year himself in 2015 but by his own admission, he didn’t kick on from it. In 2016, he made a fairly massive life change by leaving his job as a sales rep for an agri-food company and setting up his own gym. Talk to those within the Kilkenny set-up now and they point to the move as the true starting point for the player we’re seeing now.

After Reid’s 5-35 (50 points), the drop-off to the next highest Kilkenny scorer is sheer as a cliff-face

On top of giving him more time and space to concentrate on getting his body right, it gave him no choice but to learn to be the leader Kilkenny needed him to be. When you put your name above the door of a business, you take on more than just giving a few fitness classes. You assume responsibility for employees, for organisation, for payroll and ordering and all that jazz. You become a leader, whether you like it or not.

It is no coincidence that his outsized role as the leader of the Kilkenny team has been cemented in the past three seasons since he opened Reid Fitness. Be the person, be the player. It’s all baked in.

“He would have had to work on leadership over the years,” Fennelly says. “His leadership comes through action. His rating in every game is probably around seven-plus so that’s the leadership he shows. Winning ball is his big thing, catching a puck-out, taking pressure off his defence and his goalkeeper. Performance on the field is his big way of showing leadership.

“Off the field, he’s very passionate about it and well able to talk. But it’s his commitment levels that stand out for everyone else to see. From his later-20s onwards, he became really interested in gym-work and strength and conditioning. Opening his own gym meant that he was able to really focus on it and add that physique to his natural hurling ability. He’s been injury-free since he opened it and he’s been able to maintain his speed and strength.”

An outlier

It all adds up to what we’ve seen from him over the past month. Reid is more than the point of the spear for Kilkenny now. The heavy scoring is eye-catching but it’s really just the recordable manifestation of his overall worth.

As Jackie Tyrrell pointed out in his column yesterday, Reid took nine clean catches in the Galway game. He kept Kilkenny in with a shout despite only having 18 possessions across the afternoon. That it felt like he was on the ball way more than that tells you everything about his influence and efficiency.

This is not normal. Not in Kilkenny, not under Brian Cody. In a set-up so fundamentally based on the collective, Cody has never had room for an outlier. Or maybe he’s never needed one this badly.

After Reid’s 5-35 (50 points), the drop-off to the next highest Kilkenny scorer is sheer as a cliff-face. Alan Murphy has 0-6 to his name, Ger Aylward has 1-3. When there is a 44-point lag between your first and second scoring threat after just three games, Cody doesn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.

Put it this way, Reid has put together this unfathomable run of games and they still need to go to Wexford tonight and get a result. Where would they be without him?

For Kilkenny people, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

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