For the rest of our lives we can say we saw Henry Shefflin play
Executing his skills under excruciating pressure was what set the Kilkenny great apart
2011 final : John O’Keeffe and Shane McGrath get up close and personal – Hard work had certainly brought out a formidable talent but Henry Shefflin had what all great players possess – the confidence and nerve to execute his skills under excruciating pressure
Although it appears obvious now that it’s about to happen, there was uncertainty about Henry Shefflin’s intentions since the end of last week’s All-Ireland club final.
Some in Ballyhale were convinced he’d stay on for a 17th season, buoyed by another successful All-Ireland campaign with the club. Others in the county thought that he’d be perfect for a mentoring role within the panel and at the club’s annual dinner last weekend county chair Ned Quinn asked Henry to stay on and win an 11th medal.
The only one whose opinion mattered decided however that it was time to depart the county scene he has dominated for so long and who could quibble with the timing?
As the legend of his career grew the details of his comparative obscurity at minor level became commonplace and underlined that he hadn’t been a prodigy, whose coming at senior level had long been anticipated.
The shaping of Henry Shefflin took place down the road in Waterford IT and was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly it had become noticeable that Kilkenny hadn’t been producing players at Fitzgibbon Cup level to the same extent as other counties and secondly WIT was taking off as a nursery for top-class hurlers.
As WRTC it had won a couple of Fitzgibbons before Shefflin’s time but for three years running, 2001-03, the Hurler of the Year was an alumnus of the Waterford Institute. As he put himself talking about the college: “After minor it was like training for an intercounty team,” he said. “It was an eye opener for myself and got me very fit as well. At that stage we had about 13 intercounty players on the team so it opened my eyes to the level I needed to be at to get to the top of my game.
“The standard was unbelievable. It brings your own game on and it made me physically stronger when I was starting with Kilkenny. To win Fitzgibbon you had to be a good tough team and that stood to me.”
One of the remarkable aspects of Shefflin’s intercounty career has been that it was parallel with Brian Cody’s management over 16 years. Their first championship match was against Laois in 1999 and they were a feature of all Kilkenny’s championship matches until injury destroyed the player’s season in 2013.
I remember at the very start of Shefflin’s career that Cody cautioned against getting carried away with the young newcomer’s prospects, pointing out that he had a fitness advantage because of Fitzgibbon at that stage in early 1999. Yet by championship time the manager had entrusted the 20-year-old with the free-taking duties instead of the legendarily accomplished DJ Carey. In a final that proved a great disappointment for Kilkenny, Shefflin was the only forward to play to form and top scored with 0-5, including an impeccable four frees on a wet day in a low scoring match won by Cork. He ended the championship as joint-top scorer, a first step to what would be an all-time record of 27-483. A week later he won an All-Ireland under-21 with the county and the pattern was set for performances on the biggest stage.
As a player he was at 6’ 2” strong in the air but not especially fast nor a virtuoso ball player. Hard work had certainly brought out a formidable talent but he had what all great players possess – the confidence and nerve to execute his skills under excruciating pressure and when the stakes are highest. Shefflin had an instinctive sense of what the team needed him to do. In the 2002 final he immediately took on Seán McMahon who had been having a commanding season for Clare at centre back and created the opening goal.
Brian Whelahan, the only contemporary Team of the Millennium laureate, remembers realising that his own great day was nearly done when he was close by Shefflin, marking him as a lineball was being taken, and being taken aback that his opponent called the ball on himself regardless of his marker’s presence.
When the 2003 final was in the balance against Cork he delivered a galvanising point from under the Cusack Stand and over the Canal End goal posts. Even Cody, to whom individual plaudits don’t come easily, pinpointed it as a key event in the win.
When Tipperary’s unexpectedly strong challenge was at its zenith in 2009 it was Shefflin who strode up to take the critical penalty with minutes to go and dispatch it venomously to the net. In a way there was no greater indication of his importance than the 2010 final. The pre-match madness on the cusp of five-in-a-row that convinced someone of Brian Cody’s determinedly unsentimental nature that Shefflin could play for a while on an injured cruciate demonstrated how uneasy he was at the idea of sending out the team without his on-field lieutenant.
When he had to leave after 13 minutes, he had played the ball more often than anyone else and the sight of his departure was beyond dispiriting for the team.
Bonus territoryChristy RingJohn Doyle
At the time he appeared content, genuinely philosophical about the future and his career in bonus territory. Despite the scale of his profile, Shefflin has always been relaxed with media. He picked and chose the engagement but in less formal post-match or press night surroundings was courteous and good humoured.
On that day nearly two years ago he reflected on 2012 with its record 10th All-Ireland medal, 11th All Star and third Hurler of the Year award. “I said it at the time that it was a special year, the way the whole summer transpired because obviously I had the injury and was struggling a bit and struggling for form a bit and then it just blossomed for me from there. That was a special one for myself, to win the Hurler of the Year 10 years after my first and the whole year.
“The way Kilkenny were just gone after the Leinster final and next thing, it just started to come, started to come and then finished with a buzz. That’s sport. That’s why we play – to get that buzz.”
Watching even the greatest of careers unfold is an incremental process. The power of greatness is that it endures. For the rest of our lives we can say that we saw Henry Shefflin play.