The Solutions Man Paul 'Shorty' Shiels ready for another crack at Ulster
SINCE his minor days Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels has always been The Solutions Man.
A manager’s dream. Low maintenance, a hurling IQ that’s off the scale, the team metronome that makes those around him better and is always the clearest thinker when the temperature rises.
Sweeper, midfield, centre-forward, half-back - you could find ‘Shorty’ anywhere on a hurling field, bringing calm to a crisis.
“He has a brilliant hurling brain,” said former Antrim manager Terence McNaughton after the Dunloy man announced his inter-county retirement two years ago.
“‘Shorty’ was low maintenance, a very intelligent hurler. More often than not, he always made the right decision in possession.”
Shiels called it a day with Antrim at just 29. Surgery on both hips and a young family convinced him that stepping away from the inter-county scene was the right decision in order to prolong his club career.
Now 31, he’s won two county championships since and finds himself in tomorrow’s eagerly awaited Ulster final against serial winners Slaughtneil of Derry.
“I wanted to give what ever good years I had left to Dunloy and we’ve been lucky enough to win another Championship since,” Shiels says.
“So, you could say it was a good enough decision but you always miss playing for Antrim, especially come Championship. They played a lot of their games in Dunloy this year which definitely didn’t make them easy to watch.”
Shiels is heartened to see more Dunloy men on Antrim's team-sheet too, including the likes of Eoin O'Neill, Keelan Molloy, Nigel and Ryan Elliott.
“Inter-county is more intense," he says. "You’re playing with the best players in the county and you get to see what way they train.
"I wouldn’t be a big fan of these clubs that withdraw their county players. The club season kicks in so long after the county season is finished. Those boys are missing out on invaluable experience, so I’m glad to see our boys going because it can only do them good.
“Even the great Dunloy team [of the 90s], Gregory and Gary [O’Kane] and all those boys, they soldiered with Antrim for years and gave great service to their club as well."
Like a lot of his generation, the Cuchullain’s clubman has a handful of Ulster Championship medals to show for an inter-county career that promised so much during the minor days but delivered so little at senior level.
Coached by McNaughton and Dominic McKinley, the Antrim minors of 05/06 were the best the county had produced in a long time.
The Saffrons were blessed in the mid-2000s with the likes of Shiels, Neil McManus, Shane McNaughton, Aaron Graffin, Eddie McCloskey, Paddy McGill, Cormac Donnelly, Kevin McKeague and Neal McAuley.
“That was a great group of minors and a lot of them went on to have very good club careers,” Shiels says.
“I remember reading Neil McManus where he said that we expected ourselves to do well at senior level. We all had the same mindset. We were competing with the best teams in our age group.
"At that time Antrim were competing really well in the MacCarthy Cup, running Tipperary  and Wexford  close, and we were coming in at a time when you thought Antrim was going to be really competitive again.
“I did actually feel that we could be relatively successful with the Antrim seniors.
“And we had a bit of success. We beat Dublin in 2010 and we played in an All-Ireland quarter-final [against Cork] but it changes so quickly.
“You only have a small window at that level. We had a good group of experienced players and a good group of minors coming through.
“So it was a wee bit disappointing. We lost big ‘Hippy’ [Cormac Donnelly] to a major injury. We had a couple of bad injuries to other players too; Neil [McManus] had back surgery, Neal McAuley was injured as well. Things didn’t pan out the way you would have hoped.”
By the time the cream of those minors stepped into the senior ranks the Ulster Championship had been downgraded and was no longer a path to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
In 2007 and ’08, Antrim entered a newly created preliminary round robin series and faced the likes of Clare and Galway.
Before too long All-Ireland quarter-final appearances were sporadic events for Antrim.
“If you were playing for Antrim now you would give your right arm to be playing at that level,” Shiels says.
Despite the creeping years, Shiels’ performances for Dunloy remain pristine as ever. Playing midfield, he feels the induction of a clutch of the club’s successful minor teams has refreshed Gregory O’Kane’s senior side.
Keelan Molloy, Conal Cunning, Ryan Elliott, Eoin O’Neill and Seaan Elliott are just some of the young guns who feel more at home in the big league.
“It’s nice to be playing with guys at the other end of the spectrum… When they came in it was a breath of fresh air.
“They’re happy-go-lucky lads and I don’t think they realise what’s going on around them. They just enjoy playing. They don’t realise the older you get, you maybe feel the nerves a bit more and it means more to you as you get older.
“Your career goes by in a blink. I remember coming into teams as a young player and it feels like no time ago. You hear that so often, but when you’re younger you think: ‘It’s bound to last a bit longer than that.’
“You can’t explain that to young fellas enough. You’ve to squeeze as much out of it as you can because you’ll soon be wondering: ‘Where did those 10 years go?’”
A father-of-two to Ada (3) and Maeve (1), Shiels hopes he can still be around the Cuchullian’s senior team for a few years to come.
“We’ve a couple of wee girls now and it’s nice to see them on the pitch after the games and hopefully they can look back on that when they’re older.
“It’s about creating memories for them.”