Hurling & Camogie

Paul 'Shorty' Shiels one of Dunloy and Antrim's finest

Paul Shiels of Dunloy Cuchullains celebrates their All-Ireland semi-final win over St Thomas
Paul Shiels of Dunloy Cuchullains celebrates their All-Ireland semi-final win over St Thomas Paul Shiels of Dunloy Cuchullains celebrates their All-Ireland semi-final win over St Thomas

YOU won’t experience a more hushed All-Ireland final press night than the Dunloy hurlers’. Probably the way Gregory O’Kane wanted it. The fewer the tape-recorders, photographers and TV cameras, the better from the manager’s perspective.

It’s a dank old winter’s evening in the north Antrim village. A few walkers do circuits of the back pitch beside the clubrooms.

Just inside the clubrooms’ doors, you cannot miss the framed ode to the late Frankie McMullan (1974-2004), entitled a ‘Letter from Heaven’ hanging on the wall.

A hard read for even the casual observer, it’s impossible not to pause and reflect on one of Dunloy’s finest.

Upstairs, manager Gregory O’Kane and players Ryan Elliott, Nigel Elliott and Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels roll in to provide some words for the local GAA media ahead of their All-Ireland showdown with Ballyhale Shamrocks.

It’s hard to find a more unassuming individual on the GAA circuit than ‘Shorty’ Shiels – the kind of hurling artisan that is born, not made.

You invite him to sit down in a quiet part of the function room to ask if he’s fit for next Sunday’s All-Ireland final.

During the county final in October, Cushendall’s Eoghan Campbell landed on top of him.

The 34-year-old stumbled to his feet and felt a searing pain at the base of his spine.

For a period after their innocuous collision, it didn’t look like he was fit to continue, but recovered sufficiently to go on and lift the Volunteer Cup on the steps of the Corrigan Park stand and celebrate the club's four-in-a-row triumph.

He subsequently wasn’t fit to start the Ulster final against Slaughtneil in December; he was good to go against St Thomas’s in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park a couple of weeks later but was held in reserve until Aaron Crawford's injury in the 33rd minute.

At the press night, he insisted he was “ready to go”. A penny for Gregory O’Kane’s thoughts who was conducting a press interview across the room.

In October 2017, he felt his hips weren’t fit for inter-county purpose any longer and decided to step away from Antrim before his 30th birthday.

Antrim’s joint managers at the time, Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley and Terence McNaughton, were already planning for next season's Division 1B campaign, and both saw ‘Shorty’ as an indispensible element of the team.

‘Woody’ recalls: “He came into us and said: ‘Boys, I’m finishing up.’

“It was a total shock. We knew he had injuries but as managers we wanted so much to keep him as you’re talking about one of those elite players.

“In hindsight, ‘Shorty’ made the right decision for himself and for the club because he was able to give Dunloy so much more because if he'd continued to do both he wouldn’t be hurling for them today. He would have been on the operating table quite often, or more often than he had been.”

Because of his hip issues, ‘Shorty’ himself thought he didn’t do himself justice in his last season for Antrim.

“I wasn’t content with it but I felt I’d run my course with Antrim and it needed a bit of freshening up. I just felt that we’d a group of players coming through at Dunloy that were very young and I wanted to be part of that, I wanted to try and help them develop and try and lead that team."

‘Shorty’ adds: “It was a tough decision to step away from the county. I talked to a number of people, close friends and family and my wife. They’d all agreed that it was time. The next season was tough because Antrim played a lot of games here in Dunloy and I definitely missed it but I was content with my decision.

“I was only 29 but it was the running, the commitment, having a young family on top of that. In hindsight, it feels like a good decision because we won a championship that year [2017] – I know we lost the following year but that was probably a blessing in disguise for this team. And then we went on a bit of a run.”

Eddie McCloskey played with ‘Shorty’ from school right through the Antrim grades.

In the early ‘Noughties’, St Louis, Ballymena claimed the Forrester Cup (fifth year) and despite only being a fourth year student, young Shiels was already a key player for his school team.

“We were playing a really strong Cross & Passion team in the final,” says McCloskey, “and ‘Shorty’ played corner-forward that day and that was when we thought there was something special about him. He’s been at the forefront of any team he’s played on ever since.”

In 2005, McKinley and McNaughton sensed that there was something a bit special about the crop of minor hurlers coming through: ‘Shorty’, Neil McManus, Arron Graffin, Eddie McCloskey, Neal McAuley, Shane McNaughton, Cormac Donnelly, Paddy McGill, Barry McFall and CJ McGourty among them.

McKinley and McNaughton tried several players in the sweeper’s role, but once Shiels was thrown in, nobody came close to matching his reading of the game and distribution.

Eddie McCloskey says Paul Shiels was pure intelligence on a hurling field
Eddie McCloskey says Paul Shiels was pure intelligence on a hurling field Eddie McCloskey says Paul Shiels was pure intelligence on a hurling field

“We ended up calling it the ‘Shorty’ role. He was pure intelligence,” McCloskey says.

‘Woody’ adds: “Once you start into a team, you look for players that can do certain roles… We tried umpteen players in that [sweeper] role – Neil [McManus], Cormac [Donnelly], Arron Graffin – some of the best players this county’s ever had.

“’Shorty’ was the only one who could play that specific role. There was no-one that could see certain situations developing like him. He was like a tracker. He was fit to read the situation before it happened.”

In ‘05 and ’06, the Antrim minors went desperately close to beating Galway and Limerick in the All-Ireland series but ultimately no cigar.

“We genuinely thought we could beat anybody,” McCloskey recalls of his Antrim minor days. “That was just the way we felt.”

It seemed a natural extension of McNaughton and McKinley’s managerial careers to take the senior reins and bring with them the minor class of ’05 and ’06.

Antrim, however, endured more bad days than good – but throughout the different managerial upheavals, Shorty’s role never changed.

“'Shorty' had a bit of everything,” says Kevin Ryan, who was Antrim manager between 2012 and 2015. “He was just a good all-round hurler. Most important of all, what a lot of that squad had – the likes of Neil McManus and Arron Graffin - they were good fellas, good people.

“It’s that All Blacks phrase: ‘Better person – better player’. They were courteous and respectful.

“I remember we put together a few motivational videos of the team, just to show their best bits and I still laugh at it because ‘Shorty’ featured in so much of them. Just taking ball and passing it out; he could go through fellas, around fellas, he had it all. He could have played anywhere with anybody, really.”

Injuries, though, were never far away from the Dunloy man’s door. He underwent a couple of surgeries to repair his hips and did more rehab sessions than he cares to remember.

“You get players that just have that bit of something,” says Cushendall’s Neil McManus.

“Shane McNaughton and ‘Shorty’ were quite similar because they could play balls that others couldn’t see. I remember ‘Shorty’ hitting me a pass against Wexford which other people wouldn’t have seen. You remember those wee things as a player and how good his passing was.”

McManus says he could “never blame” Shiels for stepping away from Antrim in 2017. Describing that period as the “doldrum years” for the county, McManus nearly finished with Antrim at the end of 2018.

“If some people weren’t totally enthusiastic about playing for Antrim back then, I could totally understand it.”

Neil McManus would love to see his former Antrim team-mate start Sunday's All-Ireland final
Neil McManus would love to see his former Antrim team-mate start Sunday's All-Ireland final Neil McManus would love to see his former Antrim team-mate start Sunday's All-Ireland final

Since announcing his retirement, Shiels has pocketed five county championships. In each of those successful championship runs, Shiels has been Gregory O’Kane’s trusted metronome.

In his deep-lying midfield role, ‘Shorty’ puts out fires and starts them at the other end of the field. His decision to throw his lot in with this Dunloy team five years ago is easily rationalised.

With his impeccable radar and a clutch of Cuchullain’s speedsters to pick out up front, how could he or Dunloy lose?

Either side of the championship games he’s played in 2022, he’s had to battle back from different injuries. But he’s finally clear of his most recent setback with the back problem firmly in his rear view.

Asked at last Wednesday’s press night about Shorty’s value to the Dunloy effort, O’Kane replied: “Your best players will always be your best players.”

In his absence against Slaughtneil and St Thomas's, O’Kane has recalibrated the midfield sector very successfully.

O'Kane could start Sunday’s final with Shiels – or finish the game with him.

Either scenario has its merits as the north Antrim men take their shot at All-Ireland glory.

‘Shorty’ says: “I’d say when I train you’re always trying to prove something. With my schedule, I don’t train every night. The boys might be on the pitch and I might be in the gym but I’m still doing my two grass sessions every week. There is a bit of pressure. Obviously, when somebody comes in and takes your place, you want it back...”

Although they’re adversaries on the club circuit in Antrim, McManus wants Dunloy to win their first All-Ireland title on Sunday – and hopes his former county team-mate starts the game.

“I personally would love to see ‘Shorty’ starting Sunday’s final and to lead Dunloy out at Croke Park because I think he deserves it,” McManus says.

“That’s obviously a decision for Gregory O’Kane but I feel loyal to those people who I played with for so long.”

Speaking barely above a whisper in the clubrooms last Wednesday evening, ‘Shorty’ insists that Sunday certainly won’t be the end of his playing career. He will play on next season.

Asked if he’s thought much about retirement, in his own understated way, he smiles: “I don’t actually know. I’ve always this notion in the back of my head that I’ve golf in front of me; it’s like a wheelbarrow – it’s always in front of me! But, it’s not something I’m thinking about just yet.”