Antrim hurling ace Paul Shiels would thrive in any team, in any era

Paul Shiels, who retired from inter-county hurling, was one of the best of his generation

“People say ‘Shorty’ would get into any team in the country. He wouldn’t just get into the team; he’d make the difference in any team in the country. He’s so stylish. He has everything: speed, reading of the game, bravery.

“As a wing-back I think he would be one of the best of all-time. It sounds that I’m going overboard but I’m thinking of lads in Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny – particularly Kilkenny who would have been regarded as the best of all-time - ‘Shorty’ was as good as any of those lads.” – former Antrim manager Kevin Ryan

IT doesn’t seem that long ago there was a quiet excitement swirling around Antrim about the minor hurlers of 2005 and ’06.

The likes of Arron Graffin, Neil McManus, Eddie McCloskey, Shane McNaughton, Cormac Donnelly, Neal McAuley and Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels all came at once.

All of them would leave their mark on the senior team.

In ’05, they should have beaten Limerick in the All-Ireland series. The following year they had Joe Canning and Galway by the scruff of the neck in Mullingar but were pipped at the post.

Antrim were more than just competitive. They had proved themselves on the inter-county circuit and the future looked bright.

This fine group of hurlers had infinite road in front of them.

At that age, you think you’ll play forever. But time flies by at a ruthless pace.

Those minor years must feel like five minutes ago.

Spool forward to 2017 and those minors nurtured by Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley are all in their late 20s.

Some of them went travelling. Some got married and had kids. Others got injured and don’t play any more.

Destined to be one of the best full-backs in the country, injury cruelly cut short Cormac Donnelly’s playing career.

Shane McNaughton was plagued by a hip injury. He is now pursuing an acting career in New York.

At the back end of last season, Eddie McCloskey lost his love for hurling and quit the Antrim scene.

In others, we’re witnessing the last rage against the dying light on the inter-county stage where the demands are ceaseless.

And last weekend the Antrim senior management team was left reeling by the news that Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels had played his last game for his county.

The Dunloy man hasn’t yet celebrated his 30th birthday and he was bowing out.

Two major hip operations cost him two entire seasons of his playing career – 2009 and 2016.

He came back last season for what turned out to be one last throw of the dice with Antrim.

‘Shorty’ was without doubt the most naturally gifted hurler to come out of Antrim in a very long time.

There was no retirement statement released through GPA channels.

No emotionally charged or choreographed words of thanks to previous managers, team-mates or family.

A quite shy man away from the hurling field, ‘Shorty’ didn’t want any attention surrounding his inter-county retirement.

The prospect of a big send-off interview with The Irish News was politely declined.

Confirming the news, he replied: “I spoke to the management last night just to let them know. I wanted to keep it as low key as possible though.”

Undoubtedly his best years in the saffron jersey came in the middle of Kevin Ryan’s reign.

After recovering from his first hip operation, ‘Shorty’ battled back to full fitness and for the next two years team-mate Neil McManus said he was “pure gold” for Antrim.

‘Shorty’ was the type of player who could play anywhere on the field and thrive: centre-forward, midfield, centre-back, wing-back.

“What Paul has you cannot coach,” said Dunloy manager Gregory O’Kane.

Terence McNaughton believed his greatest asset was his intelligence on the field and how he invariably made the right decisions in possession.

Of course, it’s a familiar refrain to exaggerate a player’s qualities when he retires from the game.

But, either side of those hip operations, Paul Shiels was the real deal, a hurler of undisputed class and as Kevin Ryan says, he would not only have got on any team in the country, he would have been the difference on any team in the country.

He never received Allstar recognition – he lived too far north for that kind of accolade.

Kevin Ryan was around the Waterford set-up during Justin McCarthy’s time in charge in the mid-Noughties and knows southern terrain like the back of his hand.

He said: “It’s a serious shame that a player like ‘Shorty’ can retire from inter-county hurling and no-one bats an eyelid down here.

“There are lesser hurlers down here who are retiring and being glorified - and they wouldn’t be fit to lace his boots…

“He’s a fantastic reader of the game plus he has the attacking game. I would put him up there with the best. I think he’s beyond just getting on any team - he’d be the driving force in any team.

“He’s such an unassuming chap. He wouldn’t give you his opinion on things unless you went looking for it. I wouldn’t say calculating but he was on the button when he spoke.

“I just think he’s a great individual in every way. Beyond it all he’s just a gentleman, which is a bigger thing in life.”

Time rushes by so quickly.

It wasn’t so long ago everyone was lauding all these young fellas from the Glens: McManus, McNaughton, McAuley, Graffin, McCloskey and ‘Shorty’.

The minor class of ’05 and ’06 probably imagined a different kind of career at senior level.

Many of them punched their weight against the best teams in the country.

'Shorty' most certainly did.

On a rainy day in February where boots would sink into the heavy sod, the little magician from Dunloy would entertain and enthrall you and keep you coming back for more.

He was an artist at work.

The pleasure will be all Dunloy's for the next four or five years...

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