Henry Shefflin retirement: He was the perfect fuse of talent and temperament
Kilkenny great’s courage - even more than his skill - was what gave him absolute authority, writes fellow clubman PM O’Sullivan
Henry Shefflin: nothing was left undone, no question left dangling
Late last Wednesday week, Andy’s Bar, Main Street of Ballyhale. The club’s sixth All-Ireland title, won the day before, is being celebrated. Wisps of roguery tighten and a bit of karaoke breaks out by the fire, as one of the hurlers plays a Clash track on his phone. Some of the finest offer their take on Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Henry Shefflin tilts with the moment, a beaming sphinx, one of the lads, a rogue among his own fine rogues.
Now the question is answered in sober terms. He has gone into our fascination.
Behind the scenes, though, what you saw was what you got. There were no airs and graces, save in his strokeplay. Ballyhale is a levelling place, which he embraces with good humour, a connoisseur of gossip and mischief.
Yes, a perfect fuse of talent and temperament. Yes, the whole package. But there was much work, before that union, on both sides of the divide.
There were doubters
Mouthy as a young hurler, Henry got sent off for dissent in 1997’s minor A south final. He was too fond of tipping the ball over a marker’s head and the like. He chased embellishment and there were doubters.
Still, his first display arrived in that minor A county final. He led victory over wild favourites James Stephens. A straw lifted into the wind. The previous August, Shefflin had battled criticism after the Kilkenny minors went down to Clare. So we knew, in his own place, this fella was not for wilting.
The arc of his career became the relentless deletion of anything superfluous. Desire made him better and better and he simply ended up with that bit extra.
Waterford’s Eoin Kelly, as fine a stickman in certain regards, got lost in the labyrinth of his temperament. Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly, with at least as good a first touch, could never quite impose himself as decisively in the last 10 minutes.
Joy and satisfaction
Club genuinely meant much. Interviewed for My Great Sporting Memories, Shefflin selected 2006’s senior title for “the joy and satisfaction it brought to the team, the panel, the selectors and management, and to the whole community”.
That evening, the Ballyhale squad headed to Langton’s for a meal. Never were there happier people on Maudlin Street. Strolling down, Henry said with emphasis: “You have no idea what a weight that is off my mind . . .” Doubters in the parish had not gone away.
He was perhaps thinking of a post-pub get-together the night Ballyhale Shamrocks won under-21 A in November 2005. That success salved burning disappointment over defeat to James Stephens, a few weeks earlier, in the senior final. Henry had not fared well and was on a big down against himself for squandering – he was precise – 2-5.
Over whiskey and biscuits, he spoke about a recent charity trip to Africa, about the many conversations with Brian Whelehan. Would he ever do with Ballyhale what Whelehan had done with Birr? That moment in late 2005, before the first cruciate injury in 2007, probably counted as the toughest low, since it involved his own crowd.
He rebounded there, as later from the raft of injuries. Now, a year on, Shefflin is heading to Langton’s, unburdened and elated on Maudlin Street. Rathnure are up a week later, Leinster semi-final. Dangerous scenario.
Fully appreciating Shefflin’s gifts meant seeing it from the sideline. And now TJ Reid gathers possession and rips the centre of Rathnure’s defence. Shefflin, hurtling down the left in parallel, choreographs with shouts: “No! No! No! No!”
Then, optimum moment: “Now!”
Henry takes TJ’s handpass and lamps home beyond Dermot Flynn, effectively ending the contest.
Has any other player communicated with colleagues on the field so effectively, without lessening a whit his own contribution? Doubled genius was afoot, cutting a unique groove.
It looked as if someone was simultaneously conducting an orchestra and playing chess. Up close, Shefflin’s poise was eerie. Time slowed.
Stabbing the bull
The mind forever sped. Henry would say himself that he is not the world’s ablest taker of penalties. Yet he marshalled his best one for the best possible moment, sticking the ball over Brendan Cummins’ left shoulder in September 2009 as surely as any darts great stabbing the bull for a 170 checkout. More than skill, more than advice, it was his courage that earned absolute authority in the dressingroom.
That electrifying coldness in heat of battle re-emerged as the exact opposite choice in 2012, when he pointed a penalty to put Kilkenny up the bare minimum against Galway in the drawn All-Ireland final. At home, musing on Shefflin’s bounty, they talk about a native sitting beside another native as their man prepared to strike.
“If he goals it,” said one, “they’ll have to win!”
“He’ll point it,” said the other. “It’s the percentage bet.”
“Go away,” he replied. “You have to go for a goal from a penalty, like in ’09.”
Shefflin clipped over. The one swung back round, his face an exclamation mark. “Didn’t I tell you that man is like a computer?”
The singer changes but hurling’s song, the registers of excellence, remains the same. Henry Shefflin hit all needful notes. Forget the unique haul of medals. As a player, nothing was left undone, no question left dangling. The player was even greater than the winner.
Henry did it.
PM O’Sullivan was part of the senior set-up for Ballyhale Shamrocks in 2006-07 and from 2012 to 2015