Kilkenny defender Mikey Butler celebrates with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup after his man of the match performance in the Leinster SHC Final against Galway.
Kilkenny defender Mikey Butler celebrates with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup after his man of the match performance in the Leinster SHC Final against Galway. 

Mikey Butler's rapid rise from water boy to key defender


By John Harrington

There’s a reason Mikey Butler has looked so comfortable in the Kilkenny set-up in his maiden championship campaign – he’s been around it longer than you might think.

That’s because for a good chunk of his childhood Butler was a permanent fixture in the Kilkenny dressing-room, helping out in any way he could as an ancillary member of the backroom team.

The dependability that has made him an instant success at corner-back for the Cats this year was a trait that was apparent from a very young age.

“The first time I came across Mikey Butler was more than 10 years ago when he’d come into the dressing-room as a young lad helping out,” recalls former Kilkenny star Michael Rice.

“I don't know if he's living quite close but he used to come in and help out with giving out the drinks and all of that stuff to players.

“When we'd come back in our gear-bags would be full of milk and lucozade and water and fig-rolls and Mikey would have been helping out with that too. I'd imagine he was only 10 or 11 years of age. He was still in primary school.

“He was a lovely chap. Even back then you could see he just absolutely loved the game and enjoyed being involved in any way.”

His club manager with O’Loughlin Gaels, former Kilkenny midfielder Andy Comerford, didn’t realise Butler helped out in the Kilkenny dressing-room as a gossoon, but the revelation doesn’t surprise him either.

Such is Butler’s natural work-ethic and honesty of endeavour in everything he does, Comerford can see why someone like Brian Cody would have approved of him from a young age.

“He's just a shocking nice chap and the family are fierce nice as well,” says Comerford. “He’s shocking honest and dependable as a hurler and he’s the very same as a person.

“I'll give you an example. He works for a local farmer, Brian Houlihan, and even on the Saturday before the Leinster Final he was working late cutting silage.

“That's the kind of lad he is. He's a real worker and just gets on with the job."

Mikey Butler pictured before Kilkenny's Allianz Hurling League clash with Tipperary in semple Stadium. 
Mikey Butler pictured before Kilkenny's Allianz Hurling League clash with Tipperary in semple Stadium. 

It’s a testament to his character as well as hurling ability that Butler was made Kilkenny U-20 hurling captain in 2020.

Rice was a selector with that team, and the decision to give Butler the arm-band was made because there was no-one in the panel who led better by example than the young O’Loughlin Gaels man.

“What impressed me most about him was his application and determination,” says Rice.

“Anything that was asked of him he did it and more. You could see that he had the right mindset and attitude to really go places.

“His leadership was more to do with how he conducted himself in training and prepared for training. Anything that was done in training was done 100 per cent and at 100 miles per hour.

“I think that was his leadership, players around him fed off that. You could see that he just brought a very, very high standard to everything he did.

“I think that was a natural thing that he brought, and it wasn't a case of I have to do this to show the lads, it was just the way he approaches training and approaches his game.

“That naturally fed through to other players. I suppose it highlighted to other players where they needed to get to in terms of physical fitness and strength and how you go about your work.”

Unfortunately for Butler, he never got to lead the Kilkenny U-20s into battle because he ruptured his cruciate ligament in a club match against Dicksboro.

This time last year he was only starting to return to training again after rehabbing the injury, which makes the instant impact he’s made with Kilkenny in this year’s Championship all the more impressive.

Mikey Butler of O'Loughlin Gaels challenges Tullaroan's John Walton in the 2021 Leinster SHC Hurling semi-final. 
Mikey Butler of O'Loughlin Gaels challenges Tullaroan's John Walton in the 2021 Leinster SHC Hurling semi-final. 

Not every player can get back to the level they were at previously after a ruptured cruciate, but Butler has come back stronger than ever. Having seen at first hand how he applied himself to his rehab, Comerford isn’t all that surprised.

“Determination is probably the word you're looking for when describing Mikey,” he says. “He's a fierce determined young lad.

“I think it was a blow to him to miss out on captaining the U-20s and he used that as a motivation to drive back and come back even stronger.

“When it came to his recovery he used to work morning, noon, and night on it. He'd be in the gym doing weights at seven or eight in the morning, then he'd do it at lunch-time, then he'd do it in the evening. He was just meticulous.

“He's as keen as mustard and he wanted to be involved in training the whole time and you kind of have to hold him back the whole time. We were trying to hold him back so we gave him a date and told him to get himself right for that match.

“With the amount of work that he'd put in during his recovery he got himself right really quickly and was bang on with the date the surgeon gave him.

“Not too many lads come back with a full recovery from as bad an injury as he had. I suppose it's a testament to just how determined he is.”

Since making his senior debut for Kilkenny in their League opener against Antrim back in February, Butler has gone from strength to strength, culminating in his man of the match performance against Galway in the Leinster Hurling Final.

He’s already looking like a complete corner-back, which is some achievement considering his lack of experience at the highest level.

“He's tigerish, he's strong over the ball, he's well capable on the ball as well,” says Rice.

“In Irish it's ‘íseal talaimhe’, that's the phrase that's used all the time. He just has that low-set, strong type who just loves to go and do a job and go man on man with a lad.

“He's probably proven in that match against Galway that he doesn't care how far he has to travel out the field. Because of his hurling ability he can go do that man-marking job and add a bit himself to the thing.

“If you want a job done he just goes and does it. There's no fuss with him, which is great. That comes down to his mindset and attitude.”

Mikey Butler of Kilkenny in action against Cathal Mannion of Galway during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 match between Galway and Kilkenny at Pearse Stadium in Galway. 
Mikey Butler of Kilkenny in action against Cathal Mannion of Galway during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 match between Galway and Kilkenny at Pearse Stadium in Galway. 

It’s easy to understand why Brian Cody would like a player like Butler. The Kilkenny manager has made it very obvious in interview after interview that what he values most from his players is honesty of effort.

You get that from Butler every day he pulls on a jersey for both club and county, and it’s complemented by a very high skill level and all the physical attributes you need to be a top defender.

Don’t be surprised if Cody pays him the ultimate compliment on Saturday by giving him the biggest task of all – neutralising the best hurler in the country right now, Clare’s Tony Kelly.

“Yeah, it'll be interesting to see what job he has on Saturday,” says Rice. “Is he the man for Tony Kelly? It would be a huge challenge because Tony is another step up again from what he's had to deal with so far.

“There’s wiser men than me making those decisions but I’d actually like to see it because it does make sense to give Mikey the job. You wouldn't pull out Tommy Walsh or Hugh Lawlor from the full-back line.

“I don't think you'd detail Mikey Carey because he's so good attacking himself. You want your centre back Richie Reid sitting and Paddy Deegan hitting as much ball as possible.

“The thing is Tony Kelly moves inside as well so obviously Mikey would be comfortable marking him there, but he wouldn’t mind following him out the field either.”

From filling water-bottles in the Kilkenny dressing-room as a kid to being one of the best players in it now, Mikey Butler has come a long way in a short time.