Joey Holden hails James O’Connor as Ballyhale make it four on the spin

Manager replaced Henry Shefflin as Shamrocks completed Kilkenny four-in-a-row

Joey Holden, one of Ballyhale Shamrocks' most decorated players, has paid tribute to club manager James O'Connor, who last year took on the unenviable task of succeeding Henry Shefflin.

On Sunday O'Connor, the former Waterford hurler, completed back-to-back Kilkenny titles in the county final – the second half of a four-in-a-row started by Shefflin in 2018.

“Yeah, one line, when James came in first,” says Holden, “one line he came in with: ‘I’m not here to change what ye do, I’m just here to sharpen the knife,’ and I think that’s what he’s done.

“He’s got a good bit of sharpness into us. It’s a long year for club lads when they go back, starting, to see the future six months down the line, to keep lads motivated and keep lads on song. It’s a tough job but he’s done it fierce well and he’s got his rewards.”


Depending on your choice of metaphor, the knife either looked a bit blunt at the weekend against O’Loughlin Gaels or remained in its sheath until urgently needed.

The devastating final quarter that decisively swung the match earned a second four-in-a-row for a small group of players but for the current generation there is an historic opportunity in a year's time to draw level with Tullaroan at the top of the county roll of honour.

“It’s great going,” he said of the achievement, which if it happens will see just 44 years between the first win and next year’s potential 20th whereas Tullaroan’s took 97 years.

“The ‘78 (team) have descendants here as well and generations gone past they’re here on the field. So to try and beat what they’ve done was a determination at one stage as well.

“The hurling field in Ballyhale is the centre of the universe down there. That’s where everyone meets and gathers. To bring such enjoyment, it’s a relief from the real world sometimes. We’ve had ups and downs in the parish that we’ve had to go through and to come down here and just to do what we do on the pitch . . . just go down there and enjoy it. That’s the vital thing for us.”

On the national stage, Ballyhale have won the two most recent All-Ireland titles – last season didn't proceed to provincial championships because of the pandemic – and now have a chance to become the first hurling club to win three successive Tommy Moore Cups.

Holden hesitates about expressing regret that last season didn’t play out.

“Ah not really. You can’t – if you’re debating that and keeping that in your mind, you’d be down the whole time. Hurling was a secondary thing compared to people’s health.

“Maybe it was an opportunity missed but, like, I’m happier that everyone got through it and my family members are happy. That’s more important than a game of hurling at the end of the day. Listen, it’s on this year, we’ll give it a rattle.”

An All-Ireland medallist with Kilkenny and an All Star fullback, Holden is aware that you make hay while the sun shines.

“Yeah, absolutely. In the last two weeks since we got to the county final, we didn’t shy away from the fact that we were going for four-in-a-row. We used it as a motivation. This is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for this group of players.

“Lads will come; lads will go but for this group of players it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity so why not use that as a motivation rather than as a pressure. Listen, we just like hurling, we just enjoy it and we enjoy making (our supporters) very, very happy and that’s what we’ve done.”

Finally, what were his thoughts on former team-mate and manager Henry Shefflin taking over the Galway team?

“Listen, the best of luck to him. I loved him as a manager and I think the Galway boys will love him as well but I just hope they don’t win too much is all, just from a Kilkenny man’s point of view.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times