Vincent Hogan: 13 years, 10 finals, 8 winners' medals, 3 career-threatening injuries, 2 tweets, but ...
Published 08/09/2012 | 05:00
ON the Wednesday evening before this year's National League final, Henry Shefflin had to abort a weights session in the Nowlan Park gym. Eoin Larkin and Jackie Tyrrell watched as he stepped from the machine ashen-faced and in palpable discomfort. Shefflin had yet to hurl this year, his recuperation from shoulder surgery in December proving dispiritingly slow and problematic.
That Sunday, he sat on the front steps of the old stand in Thurles alongside Michael Rice, Richie Power, Aidan Fogarty and Noel Hickey as Cork were ruthlessly obliterated in a final that, essentially, lasted just 10 minutes. At 33, all manner of doubts had to be settling by Henry's rib-cage.
The cartilage ripped from his shoulder during a club game last autumn represented the third career-threatening injury faced by Shefflin in five years. It would also prove, by some distance, the most challenging.
Of course, nobody seriously considered the possibility of a hurling summer without Henry. A large chunk of the country's adult population has never actually known such a thing. His greatness has been a constant since '99 and, maybe at some point along the way, presumption settled upon us like complacency in a long marriage.
In any event, Kilkenny had long since come to call only sparingly on Henry in winter. If injury didn't detain him, an extended club campaign with Ballyhale Shamrocks usually did.
So age, pain, fatigue, even natural despondency all became air-brushed from our interpretation of a man probably already entitled to be regarded as the greatest hurler who ever lived. For, by June, Henry Shefflin always seemed to be running freely.
He came to his public with the appearance of being ready.
Tomorrow, Henry plays in his 11th senior All-Ireland final. A Kilkenny win will bring his ninth Celtic Cross, elevating him above those gods of the game, Christy Ring and John Doyle. That ninth medal, in other words, would separate Shefflin from the rest of hurling.
If it happens, it will feel entirely natural, a rite of passage we long ago came to believe was only a matter of time.
The beautiful thing about his story is that, while Shefflin today is the epitome of the relentless, modern athlete, he seems to retain some resolutely old-world values. Earlier this year, his attention was drawn to a bogus Twitter account operating under his name. On advice, he set up one of his own.
To date, Henry has tweeted twice. The first time, on May 13, was simply by way of introduction -- "no choice but to sign up." The second, three days later, an appeal to disregard the bogus Henry.
Shefflin's unease with what he would regard as a process of recycling banality perfectly complements the competitive dynamic that sustains the Kilkenny hurling ecosystem. Brian Cody has never named a championship team without Henry in it and it is tempting to believe that whenever one decides to step off this gruelling treadmill, the other will be inclined to follow.
They are two profoundly different people, but their reciprocal trust is borne of a common set of values. Yet, persistent success feeds all manner of illusions and, in Kilkenny's case, it's almost tempting to see their glories as machine-like, inanimate achievements secured by what Donal Og Cusack famously likened to sport's 'Stepford Wives'. This does them a wretched injustice.
Shefflin may just have endured the most testing nine months of his life, but he's done much of it in the privacy of surgeons' clinics, physio rooms, even his own conservatory, the eyes of the hurling world drawn elsewhere.
A committed family man with a high-rank position in the bank, there had to be days when rehab grated. When the seemingly endless compulsion to deny himself what the rest of us consider humdrum indulgences had to feel skewed and a little irrational.
But Shefflin has always trained like a professional, recognising that the status of Kilkenny senior hurler bestows a privilege that not every county man can enjoy. It certainly guarantees opportunity that, in the depths of winter, isn't recognisable to a hurler in, say, Laois or Antrim. Side-stepping Kilkenny's team holiday in Cancun last January would, for Henry, thus have been no more than a sensible concession to his predicament.
So, he won't welcome any attempt to personalise tomorrow's final as one man's bid to climb to an altitude no hurler has reached.
He didn't attend Kilkenny's pre-All-Ireland media night and, save the odd commercial obligation, his only public profile this year has been confined to championship game-time and, of course, the carrying of the Olympic torch. Otherwise, hurling's biggest name has kept a resolutely quiet counsel.
As such, only those closest to Shefflin can, thus, know what he's endured to make it back to the mountain-top. That he has done so with his role of talisman still intact is nothing less than extraordinary.
Forty-five years ago, John Doyle couldn't quite get that ninth medal, Kilkenny beating Tipp in the controversial '67 final. In John Harrington's wonderful book on the Holycross man, Doyle is quoted as saying to the Irish Independent GAA correspondent, John D Hickey, beforehand: "I wish there wasn't all this talk about me and that ninth medal.
"What about all the men who have helped me win my eight medals?"
You don't need to talk to Henry Shefflin today to know that that will be precisely his thinking too. For it isn't just his craft that has ennobled hurling.
It is the essence of the man.