'Holden' out for a Hero
By Cliona Foley
Joey Holden confesses the memory of 2010 is still a bit of a blur.
He was only 18 when Ballyhale Shamrocks faced Portumna in that titanic AIB All-Ireland Club Championship Hurling Final.
“It was unreal. You're just thrown in and I came on for 10 minutes. I remember it being very fast and not getting to touch the ball, but eventually I got it and knocked over one and that was my claim to fame! It probably is a bit of an adventure when you're that young.”
Things were different five years later when the Kilkenny club giants extended their record All-Ireland haul to six. “I was more established and had a bigger responsibility in 2015. We did a lot of hard work beforehand and watched Kilmallock on a video. They were flying so we knew we'd be up against it if we gave them any leeway. In the match they were driving in balls that were just a little too long for them, and we managed to clear them out. We got on top and kept on top.”
Now, Holden is 28 and the rock of their defence. Only 2013 champions St. Thomas of Galway stand between his third, and the club's seventh All-Ireland title.
The team's age-profile and dynamic aren’t the only things that have changed in the past decade.
Ballyhale is one of the South Kilkenny villages that people traditionally stopped in on their way between the Marble City and Waterford but, like Mullinavat and Knocktopher, was bypassed by a new section of the M9 motorway in 2010.
With much less passing traffic, some of the buzz went out of its centre, making the GAA club at its entrance more important than ever. “When that happens, the hurling field becomes the hub of the parish,” Holden explains.
“It's where everyone meets regularly. There's a little pathway around the pitch that parents can walk on while their kids are training. We're trying to build that spirit again.” That spirit includes the new community-run 'Billy's Tea Rooms' which featured on (RTE's) Nationwide recently and Holden is hopeful more community enterprises will now follow.
Holden went to secondary school in the village but, like many, had to leave for college (University of Limerick). But he's back living locally again, and you can hear the pride in his voice as he talks about his home club and his job teaching tech graphics and maths in Kilkenny City VS. Ballyhale's latest odyssey to Croke Park included a “savage game” against Castlecomer in the county semi-final. “We got a goal that kinda looped in rather than got driven into the net. Small things happen. Every team probably gets a bit of luck, but we like to think we work hard and earn ours.”
They also had the expected tough and sticky tussle with Munster champions Ballygunner last time out but their full-back is the kind of doughty defender who actually relishes those sort of challenges.
“That's really what tests the skill of a lot of hurlers, when the floor is slippy and the ball is greasy and they still manage to pull off some unbelievable skills and touches.”
“Ourselves and Ballygunner mightn't have been a classic game of free-flowing hurling but it was really tough and showed real skill and class for me, from both teams.”
“You don't like those games every day,” he admits, grinning, “but they're the games where lads show a bit of grit and heart and character. Patrick's Day is always a lottery weather-wise, so you have to be ready for everything.”
One huge difference this season is that 'The King' of hurling is now leading Ballyhale from the sidelines. So how is it for his former teammates to suddenly be managed by Henry Shefflin?
“It's been seamless enough. Henry is Henry. He's very dedicated and strong-minded and knows clearly what he wants to do. That's what he did on the field himself and he's brought that with him into management.” Does he bark at them when things go wrong? “Like anyone else, when something needs to be said he has to say it,” Holden chuckles. “But he's the exact same with everyone.
“It's probably more difficult for him than us. We're still going out hurling, he's now observing and seeing what's going right or wrong, but that's what he has to do. He has to make that separation.”
Shefflin's quick-fire transition to successful management is helped by a club laden with generations of talent and tradition.
Only founded in 1972, they won their first four All-Ireland clubs in 1981, 1984, 1990 and 2007.
Powered in recent years by the second generation of Fennelly’s and Reid’s, Ballyhale are now being bolstered by a third wave of talent. The Mullen’s are cousins of the Fennelly’s and three of Henry's own nephews – Evan Shefflin and Brian and Eoin Cody – are now also starring.
Holden salutes all those toiling off pitch too: “the people who cut the grass or train the young lads three- or four-nights a-week and maybe a match at the weekend as well. Ballyhale probably only has around 1,000 people and all our mentors do amazing work behind the scenes. “
But for him the team's “unsung hero” is Bob Alyward.
“He's after injuring his finger so I don't think he’ll be able to hurl, but that man's mentality and drive every year is incredible. His kids are in the club now and his eldest Dylan is on the panel with him, which is pretty special.
“Bob has seen the club down in intermediate (in 1979) and then winning All-Irelands. He's 40 now and still down at the hurling field and driving us on. Players like that are real club people. That's what the club is all about.”
2018-19 AIB All-Ireland SHC Club Final: Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) v St Thomas (Galway) takes place in Croke Park on Sunday, March 17th (2pm throw-in)