WHAT A JOURNEY it has been.
When he started playing 60x30 handball, Tom Sheridan – a skinny kid with a wispy tache who grew up next door to the old big alley in Kells – couldn’t have envisaged the changes he would witness.
Back then, handball was a parochial sport, with hot spots around the country but no grand plan. Hamlets like Williamstown and Curraghboy, Cormeen, Cullen were on the handball map, even if they were barely on the road version. Alleys were dark, and cold – the outlook, in many ways, was the same, clinging to the past, to the golden era when the sport was played outdoors and every court was a different size and had its own idiosyncrasies.
Sheridan was a natural, though, and learned to adapt and a quarter of a century after his first senior win – the 40x20 doubles in 1986 with James McGovern – he is still a marquee player at the top level. Bear in mind that Irish players now dominate globally, something unheard of back in the 80s, and his achievements resonate even deeper.
On Saturday evening, it will all be over. Sheridan revealed this week that this weekend’s M Donnelly 60x30 Senior Doubles final against Mayo will be his last championship match. He’s getting out when the going is good, injury-free and with practically every medal in the game.
Regrets? None, he says, with typical frankness. How would you have regrets when you’ve won the lot?
“I have kids now around 15 and 16 years of age who are playing handball and I would rather give them some guidance, I’ve won all I wanted to win in handball and I think now is the time to get out without any hip or shoulder injuries or anything else,” added Sheridan.
“And I want to go out on top.”
There has been no mellowing with age for Sheridan, now 44. He was always a firebrand in the court, a rabble-rouser whose philosophy on the game was similar to that of another citeog, American legend John Bike: “When you’re hot, shoot [kill, the riskiest and most difficult shot in the game]; if you’re not hot, keep shooting till you get hot.”
It’s that which has made Sheridan such an attraction. He brought some needle to the game, and not in a nasty way. He wanted to win, desperately, and he did it, over and over again. He still does.
In another sport, he’d have been box office material. It’s ironic that as he comes to the end, the sport is finally taking off.
“Handball is much bigger than when I started, it’s massive compared to back then, with TV coverage and all that Chris Curran has brought to it. Handball is in a much better place and has come on in leaps and bounds. There is some tweaking to do, especially with 60x30 handball, but that’s something I might try to get involved with now.
“I’ve my mind made up that this is it. I’m 44 and I’m walking around with no injuries, no bad hips or shoulders, no operations or anything like that.”
The highlights have been many and varied. Beating Eoin Kennedy – the king of the big court for a decade and more – in 2003 before going on to win the Senior Singles for the first time in his career aged 35 is one. Winning the US Nationals Open Doubles (“beating the so-called best players in the world”) along with another over-40, Ducksy Walsh, in Austin, Texas two years ago is another.
But to win on Saturday would top it all off.
Mayo’s Dessie Keegan and Joe McCann are no slouches. A pair of hard-hitters – Keegan, in particular, creates a sonic boom when he connects with that right underhand – who excel in the bigger court, where they have an extra second to plant their feet, as they say in boxing, and attack the ball, the Ballaghedereen men bring a big support and plenty of pedigree.
But Sheridan and partner Brian Carroll, 19 years his junior, complement each other well. Carroll covers the right side of the court like a hare and will “pick” everything Mayo shoot that doesn’t roll out. On the left, Sheridan just keeps on keeping on…
“We’re expecting a hard game but Dessie and Joe have never, ever beaten myself and Brian and we don’t want to start now,” said the 44-year-old.
“They know what it’s all about, they’ve been in plenty of finals and won a senior 40x20 final so they’re a good team, and they have the advantage of being used to the court, having played there earlier in the championship.”
Sheridan and Carroll, who last won the title in 2010, will enter as favourites having overcome two former title-winning pairs in Dublin’s Eoin Kennedy and Egin Jensen and reigning champions Barry Goff and Colin Keeling of Wexford.
A huge occasion is expected in Abbeylara, maybe with the sort of fairytale ending sport throws up every now and then. Maybe not.
Either way, Sheridan owes nothing to the sport of handball.
Saturday 25 August, Abbeylara, Longford
- 1.30pm: MD Cork (Michael Hedigan/Daniel Relihan) v Leitrim (Donal Wrynn / Shane Doonan)
- 2.45pm: IS Limerick (CJ Fitzpatrick) v Galway (Martin Mulkerrins)
- 4.30pm: OD Meath (Tom Sheridan/Brian Carroll) v Mayo (Dessie Keegan/Joe McCann)
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