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Articulate and resilient Henry Shefflin has Galway hurling fans giddy

Excitement in maroon county as Kilkenny hurling great’s reign begins

Duggan Park in Ballinasloe rarely sees the glamour GAA days, but for one Sunday only it will become the molten core of Galway's hurling future. At two o'clock tomorrow, Henry Shefflin will take charge of the Galway senior hurling team for the first time. It may only be the Walsh Cup, taking place in the frigid slumber-lands of early January.

In maroon country, however, the excitement is general and unprecedented. Covid restrictions have limited the attendance to 3,000: but for that it would be a bonus day at the turnstiles for the county treasurer.

Shefflin's former Ballyhale and Kilkenny team-mate Michael Fennelly will be down the sideline in his role as Offaly manager. The photo opportunity of the two warriors in managerial garb will stand as a potent reminder of Kilkenny's imperious summers. So it begins.

Tantalising as the idea of the two greats operating in the same dressingroom might have been, the heady talk of the Portumna man revoking his decision has remained just that

The out-of-the-blue announcement of Shefflin’s appointment late last October was the cleanest of coups by the Galway county board. During the seven-week search for a replacement for Shane O’Neill, nobody had the imagination to speculate that the successor would be the figurehead of Kilkenny’s era of splendour; the most successful All-Ireland winning hurler in the history of the game.

The general assumption was that Davy Fitzgerald, the former Clare goalkeeper with a pedigree in getting an immediate kick from teams, would edge out a number of strong internal candidates. Just when that business was considered done, Shefflin was announced in the manner of an old-fashioned newspaper scoop.

The news within the county was greeted as a victory before a ball had been struck. Shefflin and Galway: it sounded like a perfect match, hiding in plain sight. And the appointment achieved the impossible. It made Galway hurling people forget that the age of Joe Canning – that wistful, gold tinted decade – had passed.

Day dreams

Shefflin’s arrival was made official just three months after Canning had announced his departure. Tantalising as the idea of the two greats operating in the same dressingroom might have been, the heady talk of the Portumna man revoking his decision has remained just that.

No one player – with the arguable exception of Cork’s John Fitzgibbon in 1990 – has done as much to wreck Galway All-Ireland day dreams as devastatingly as Shefflin did. Now, in Ballinasloe, he stands as an emblem of the strength and potential of Galway hurling. It has been a radical two months of change in the west.

In an odd way, Shefflin’s senior career has Galway as its point of origin. Rewind the clock: Thurles, the last Saturday in August of 1998. The day will be remembered for the infamous Offaly-Clare All-Ireland semi-final replay, with the early final whistle and the crowd protest, all that madness.

But the U-21 hurlers of Galway and Kilkenny had opened the fare early in the afternoon. Galway won easily, with Kevin Broderick (1-6), Eugene Cloonan (0-6) and Alan Kerins (1-2) leading the charge. But Shefflin landed 3-4 out of Kilkenny's total of 3-7. The senior season ended with Offaly's fateful and inimitable surge for glory and, consequently that autumn, to the appointment in Kilkenny of Brian Cody, who had taken note of what Shefflin had done that afternoon against Galway.

“I think it was a big moment for myself,” Shefflin told Brian Carroll, the former Offaly hurler and host of the terrific A Hurler’s Life podcast in a recording this summer.

“I think that game was at the back of his mind.”

Twenty-four years on, it is Shefflin’s turn to step into senior inter-county management. In addition to his peerless achievements on the hurling field, he has the densely packed managerial accomplishment of back-to-back county, Leinster and All-Ireland club titles with Ballyhale. He took over the club at an uncertain moment and with almost no fuss set about winning it all – twice. Then he stepped down, moved on.

What can Galway expect from Shefflin? Much of it is self-evident

The assurance with which he made the switch from player to manager among his former friends and team-mates bodes well. But he has also had 16 seasons of observing Cody at work. In that conversation with Carroll, Shefflin admitted that in his last season with Kilkenny, when he was no longer starting on the team, he found himself still “yearning” for a word of affirmation from Cody.

“That was all I needed after playing for Kilkenny for 16 odd years. I was craving that bit of attention or those words or compliments from Brian.”

And in demonstrating how Cody works, it wasn’t a September day sent by the gods that Shefflin remembered but a humdrum league match in February of 2000 against Tipperary. Cody told him that a few people had been warning him that Henry was tired; that he had an awful lot of hurling done, that he was struggling a bit. Shefflin was in college and enjoying life and he was inclined to agree with the assessment that yes, maybe he was a bit worn out. “You’re not tired,” Cody then clarified. “You’re just not fit.”

The effect was like a bucket of ice water to the young star. He approached that game in a demonic mindset because of those words. “I just put in a massive shift that day. He just gets it, Brian.”

It’s not the anecdote that matters so much as the fact that Shefflin could recall it with such clarity two decades later. He was always learning, always observing. Now, with all that knowledge stored, he takes charge of the most mercurial hurling county of them all.

Although it is home to generations of exceptional hurlers, Galway has never discovered how to tap into a true All-Ireland winning tradition. The 2017 All-Ireland win was just their fifth senior win and ended 29 years of disappointment.

Those three decades are a poignant battlefield filled with several marvellous Galway hurlers who came and left the game without obtaining a Celtic Cross, including Cloonan and Broderick from that U-21 game. Kilkenny’s omnipotence partly explains Galway’s frustrations through those decades – not least in Shefflin’s supernova turn in the drawn game of the 2012 All-Ireland final.

The 2017 win, achieved under Micheál Donoghue, was deepened by the general relief that Canning, long accepted as one of the game’s all-time greats, would not join the ranks of Galway hurlers who came and left without the ultimate prize. But it was hard-earned. Just before Christmas, Aidan Harte decided to retire. The Gort man came into the Galway panel in 2008, the same year as Canning.

Harte was on the substitute’s bench for Canning’s championship debut, when he hit that outrageous 2-8 on a losing day against Cork. It was a show of such luminous brilliance that it felt as though to not win a McCarthy Cup with such a player would be almost sinful.

Durable

Over the years, Harte became one of the most versatile and durable Galway players of the era. But when he reflected on that 2017 win on Galway Bay FM just before Christmas, he remembered the former team-mates who had just missed out, like David Collins, who retired in 2016.

“David was one of the first in the dressing room afterwards. I have thought about this a lot and I have said it to a lot of people, but I thought the win in 2017 was about more than the group in 2017. We had a serious set-up. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty or bring up old dramas now but we had a serious set up in 2017, there is no doubt. Would we have had that set up if the likes of David and others hadn’t put their heads on the block? I don’t think we would.

“And that is what we did. I suppose they were the age I am now. A new set-up coming in: would they have thought they would have reaped the rewards of that set-up? Maybe not.”

In other words, that success was hard-earned, and came after two painful All-Ireland final losses to Shefflin-era Kilkenny in 2012 and 2015. It is arguable that Galway were unlucky not to go back-to-back in 2018, when they were edged by an irresistible young Limerick team. But since then, Limerick have matured into a fearsome outfit and have begun to draw comparisons to Kilkenny ‘06-‘10. They’ve transformed the hurling landscape while getting stronger. Limerick are the team who all the others have to match, including Galway.

But that's for future months. Right now, Shefflin inherits a Galway hurling set-up that is in-between days. For the first time in 12 years, Galway's attacking game will revolve around something other than the lopsided brilliance of Canning. Senior players like Joseph Cooney, Johnny Coen, David Burke and Gearóid McInerney have celebrated their 30th birthdays and have many long seasons clocked.

The four successive All-Ireland minor titles from 2017-20 that ended with last year’s defeat to Cork in the final promises much but in the past, translating rich underage success to senior titles has baffled Galway managers. The internal make-up of the county hurling foundation is an intricate puzzle of deep rivalries. The public mood can swing from hopefulness to darkness very quickly. How Shefflin puts shape and organisation on all of this will be fascinating.

What can Galway expect from Shefflin? Much of it is self-evident: the affability, the sharpness, the articulacy, the frightening level of resilience, the game knowledge, the absolute faith in preparation, the cold love of winning but most of all, the humility that was a prerequisite in the Cody hurling household. Fashion those characteristics to Galway’s hurling potency . . . no wonder the local mood is giddy.

Who better suited to take a grip on such a volatile hurling force as Galway than the man whose very brilliance has been defined by a perfect competitive temperament?

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times

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