It’s 8.30pm on a Wednesday night, 10 days out from his third All-Ireland senior final, and Charly Shanks is in family mode, preparing food, putting baby Rose to bed. Handball, you’d imagine, is the last thing on his mind – that will have changed, though, as the clock ticked down to this afternoon’s keenly anticipated decider.
Shanks, 32, is a married man now, and a father; his life has changed considerably since his last appearance on the biggest day in the Irish handball calendar three years ago. A couple of years in New York, working and and competing on the Stateside handball circuit, have come and gone, and with all those life experiences has come perspective.
Time may not be running out on the Lurgan man’s dream of winning the big one here at home, but he knows now that these chances are precious, and must be seized. This year, as far as handball was concerned, the championship was all that mattered for Shanks.
“I was out injured last year and it gives you an insight into whenever you do hang up your gloves and leave handball to continue with other things in life, handball quickly forgets. You are quickly forgotten about and that really hit home last year – you have to make the most of it now when you have the chance,” said Charly.
“We just bought a house in October, around the same time as the Nationals and the Golden Gloves and US Open, you’re trying to compete in these tournaments, work a full-time job, we’ve just had a kid and you’re spread very thin. But it’s all about getting things set up nicely so that home life was steady and sorted coming into the championship. That was a big focus of mine and [wife] Mary is understanding of that.”
It’s lucky, maybe, that Mary is a medical doctor as her husband has had more than his fair share of ailments in recent years, principally a lower back injury which seriously curtailed his performances in 2014.
“Last year was a complete nightmare because I was getting pain on the court – I’m not getting that any more, I’m only getting pain if I do certain exercises off the court. If I go for a 5k run, for example, I’ll be in the pain the next day. Basically, with the nature of the injury, it has been trial and error, stripping it back to the bare minimum and then building on it week on week.
“It was a frustrating year last year, I’ll tell you that much.
“Brian [Carroll] beat me last year. It was the same as this year, it was a long six-week break in between the Ulster final and the quarter-final – he caught me nicely on the hop, he played brilliantly but I missed a lot of opportunities that day too.
“I spent two years in New York watching the results filter through from the Irish championships, and it was disappointing not to be playing in it but I was competing over there. I came back last year and lost and it hurt really bad.
“There’s one big event in Irish handball every year and it’s the All-Ireland senior championship and that’s where every player wants to be, in the final.
You had the Golden Gloves, the Gaffney, the Nationals, but it all boils down to the championship, that’s what it’s all about. I was happy enough to sacrifice those other tournaments so that I’d be in a better position now post-Christmas for the championship.”
That focus paid off with a commanding performance against Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins in the quarter-final, when he lost the opener 21-10 before winning 21-2, 21-12. He followed that up with a straight games win over Diarmaid Nash to book his place in today’s final.
“I put in a performance [against Nash] but I had done that the weekend before against Mulkerrins. Having said that, the first game was a write-off against him, I thought ‘here we go, this is going to be same as last year’ but I had to dig deep and I found a good performance then. And I just continued that against Nash.”
McCarthy, though, will provide a fresh and probably even stiffer challenge.
“What’s it going to take to beat Robbie? I’ve beat him before and he’s beat me before, so we know each other’s game pretty well. It’s going to come down to who gets their tactics right on the day and who wants it the most, that’s the bottom line.
“His serve is a big strength, he’s got a great serve. He’s extremely steady, he makes very little mistakes. But whoever wants it the most will win it.”
Having been here before, Shanks says the nerves won’t phase him. If he execute his shots as planned, the feeling is he will be right there with his foot on the accelerator as the match reaches the bend for home. After that, the man who wants it the most – and that’s a phrase he repeats – will be the one who disappears over the horizon with the spoils.
“Nerves is always a big fear, certainly when you’re younger you get the butterflies in the stomach and all of that but the butterflies in your stomach are what you want because that means it matters to you. You care about it.
“Once the adrenaline starts pumping, instinct takes over. I think you’ll see a lot of high octane handball for the first 45 minutes but it’s about who’s going to be the most consistent.”
Opinion is split as to who will win this one, with the Westmeath man starting as favourite. Shanks says he hasn’t heard much of the talk – and if he has, the sense is he’s ignoring it.
“I’m isolated where I am (laughs)! Ah, people are going to have their opinions. They’ll go with who they like the best, their handball styles, they might be friendly with that person. McCarthy won it last year, people might give him the edge, but that’s irrelevant.
“It’s a big final, it’s within your grasp, it’s in your hands and everyone believes it’s about them. McCarthy will think the same. It’s all about putting in that performance on the day.”
GAA Handball O’Neill’s 40×20 Senior Singles Championship Finals 2015
Saturday 21st March 2015, Kingscourt, Cavan
Minor Singles Final – 2.30pm
Sean Kerr (Tyrone) v Niall Joyce (Mayo)
Ladies Open Senior Singles Final – 3.30pm
Aisling Reilly (Antrim) v Catriona Casey (Cork)
Men’s Open Senior Singles Final – 4.30pm
Robbie McCarthy (Westmeath) v Charly Shanks (Armagh)