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Meet Armagh's All-Ireland champion Charly Shanks as he prepares to defend his title

By Declan Bogue

He's that rare paradox. An All-Ireland champion and yet someone who could walk anywhere and not be recognised outside of his sporting circles.

Charly Shanks (34) is a computer programmer, a husband to Mary and their two children, Rose (3) and Arthur (1), but he is also one of the finest handballers in the world, laying his All-Ireland title on the line this weekend as the preliminary rounds get going.

The Lurgan man recognises the fact he might never be stopped in the street or put on the same pedestal as other stars of the GAA, but he came to terms with that some years ago.

"I think as I have got older, you come to the realisation that the sport is what it is, it is a small playing field and the bottom line is that you are not there for publicity, you don't start playing the game for publicity or media coverage, you play because you enjoy it, so there is no point getting annoyed at the lack of coverage," he states matter-of-factly.

"As I get older, I just play the game, and that's it really."

Last year, his dream was finally realised when, after years of being defeated in the All-Ireland final by Robbie McCarthy, he finally threw off the shackles to slaughter the Westmeath man.

The journey all began in Lurgan, at his club Clann Eireann who at the start of the 1970s decided to build three huge outdoor handball alleys, the first of their kind in the locality and that led to an explosion of popularity in the game.

His grandfather Dermot played. His father Michael, too, travelling up to play in the Belfast leagues against Golden Gloves contenders from St Paul's and other clubs.

The cavernous alleys are gone now. All that remains is a small indoor alley and a one-wall court either side of it. Still, it's where he has operated a global career out of.

His sport has taken him to some variety of places. Some years ago, his then-girlfriend and now-wife Mary went to New York to work at a Cancer Research group in her training as a doctor. He went along and secured employment.

By day, he was working in software for IBM, but at the weekends he would hop onto a plane and land in Texas, Tucson or Alberta to compete in the US Pro series.

He won dozens of tournaments across two years and the prize money that went with them but it was only a washing his face exercise such was the expense of travel and accommodation. Still, he got to play - and beat - one of the American legends in the game, the late David Chapman.

Charly_Shanks.jpg
Charly in action during last year's All-Ireland final in Cavan. Pic: INPHO / Tom Beary

During this time he went from being a streaky and brilliant, but sometimes brittle, talent, to developing one of the most feared shots in the game - a freakish, massive hook off the wrist that forces the ball into impossible contortions.

It came about as a young man messing about at the club.

"I would have been 15, 16 - a fella Mervyn McCann started coaching us. His nickname was 'Merve The Swerve'. He started coaching me and he had learned how to hook the ball from the great Pat Kirby (also a famous hurler) from county Clare who had moved to Tucson to play in the US Pro Tour. That's where I picked up how to spin it, practised it and learned how to do it."

With the trickshots came a certain 'artistic temperament'. Shanks was rash, looking for the quick 'killshot'.

"But as I have got older I understand the game a lot better and have more patience," he explains. "I suppose that might be why I am a bit of a late bloomer and have started to win a bit more now in my later years."

One man stood in his way, but in truth he held the door closed for a decade while he became, in Shanks' own assessment, the best player ever - Cavan's Paul Brady.

The Mullahoran man set the standards for everyone around him, being best in the world for several years. Others thought it was his other sporting hat of an inter-county footballer with Cavan that helped him. Shanks believes that Brady routinely exceeded the training load of intercounty athletes.

"I remember being in Queen's PEC and picking up his programme and seeing what he was doing. That was 2001-2002, and I remember thinking 'wow, what the hell is going on here'," he says, to which the reaction is one of astonishment, given how closely Brady guarded the secrets of his success.

"Oh, don't worry," laughs Shanks, "he took it back off me straight away. I only got a few seconds glance at it.

"He made a sacrifice when he left university that he wasn't going to get a job. He was going to play the US Pro Tour. So first of all he didn't work. He committed himself 100% to the game and I would say there are very few county footballers doing that at the minute.

"What he did, not just from a strength and conditioning point of view, but from a handball point of view, he is a well-read guy and he has looked at other sports and took what he needed.

"When you are in his company and you are chatting to him, he is holding back a lot. But the little bits he does give you, shows that he has looked well beyond the sport of handball, he has looked and brought in other information into the game.

"I have seen it when I was younger and didn't realise what was going on. Now I realise what he was doing. When he was in his 20s he was doing S&C and core before most people knew what S&C was. That was in the early 2000s when he won his first World title."

Eventually the lessons Shanks picked up from a lifetime of watching Brady paid off.

He lost four senior All-Ireland finals. In 2015, he was 20-13 up on McCarthy but had a huge collapse and lost. In 2016, McCarthy pasted him. The same two made the final in 2017. Shanks destroyed McCarthy.

So what changed?

"I think anyone who watches me play, knows I am capable of doing that. I just hadn't produced on the day. Too streaky, not consistent," he says.

"When I came home I was determined to pick up an All-Ireland and that one where I lost to Robbie McCarthy by a point, it was in the bag and when it came to the finishing line I went off the gas a bit and he went rattling over the line.

"So facing him in 2016 it was down to preparation then. It was just a bad year, I wasn't playing well. Poor prep really.

"The third year, it was make or break. If I didn't win that one, I was gone, retired."

As much of a wrench as it would have been for him to walk away from the game he loved and had such burning ambitions in, other factors were creeping into his thoughts.

"I have two young kids and at that time there was no way I could have made all those sacrifices for another year and not to get over the line. There was too much with work and family life, and it was too painful, to be honest. If I had lost that one I wouldn't have enjoyed it anymore," he says.

And ever since, he has been a man freed of a burden.

"I suppose I didn't realise how much weight was on my shoulders. When you are playing as a kid, it's winning an All-Ireland senior title is the pinnacle. When I finally got that, it was a weight off my shoulders and I could enjoy my handball again," he adds.

He has some ideas and theories about handball, and what it can do to help itself.

The one-wall format would take it out of the underground. You can throw up a one-wall court for around £10,000, but an indoor court costs anything up to £200,000.

As such, clubs are less inclined to raise and spend that kind of money. One wall would make players visible again.

One day, he will get involved on that side of it too, but for now, this weekend, he defends his All-Ireland title. He starts today in Ballymore Eustace, Kildare, playing Tadgh Carroll of Cork in the quarter-final.

Watch out for him.

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