Sunday 21 December 2014

Vincent Hogan: Henry's enduring brilliance keeps a generation young

Published 29/09/2012 | 05:00

Ever get the feeling that life will always be better while Henry Shefflin is chasing rainbows? The day he retires is the day our world grows old. Lennox Lewis hasn't laced up gloves for a whole decade; Jose Maria Olazabal dresses in middle-age jumpers rather than chase bespoke tailoring in the Butler Cabin; Paul Gascoigne fights not to be a viable footballer, but a functioning human being.

Yet Henry is still there, rolling with the punches, taking all the cheap shots fate can land. A generation has passed since he played in his first All-Ireland final and, if tomorrow represents his 13th, it won't make any concession to his age.

For Shefflin's career has been about a lot more than longevity. When Brian O'Driscoll spoke last week with such palpable admiration of the Kilkenny man's performance in the drawn final of September 9, he was reiterating the sense that here is a career that has begun to transcend its sport.

And, on the eve of Henry's latest attempt to win an unprecedented ninth All-Ireland medal, the evidence accumulates.

For the fourth consecutive year, Shefflin has topped a poll conducted to identify the most admired personality in the GAA. This, in itself, is hardly surprising.

Far more eye-catching is his status as the only GAA inclusion in a poll of 'Most Admired Irish Sports Personality'.

Marketing consultancy Onside Sponsorship yesterday released the findings of a survey involving one thousand people, and Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor unsurprisingly sits top.

But Shefflin's inclusion at No 5, ahead of a Lions captain (Paul O'Connell), Ireland's record soccer goal-scorer (Robbie Keane), the world's No 1 golfer (Rory McIlroy), Ireland most-capped soccer player (Shay Given) and a three-time Major golf champion (Padraig Harrington), registers as quite a statement of what he has come to represent.

The essential parochialism of Gaelic games should, logically, limit Henry's recognition factor, particularly through the eyes of a randomly chosen jury. Yet, Shefflin's endless pursuit of excellence has long since set him apart.

As far back as 2006, the mutterings were audible in UCD's O'Reilly Hall when he was named RTE's Sports Personality of the Year, ahead of internationally decorated competitors like Taylor, O'Connell and Derval O'Rourke.

But Shefflin, even then, had caught the imagination of a broader public. That he has since overcome three career-threatening injuries merely heightens the sense today that here is more than a hurler.

Devoid of artifice or self-service, here is a man who strives simply to be better every day. And, in doing so, one who keeps a generation young.

Heat on Kidney to keep bums on seats

FOR the man who coached Ireland to a first Grand Slam in 61 years, Declan Kidney must be feeling uncomfortably close to the blindfold and the cigarette just now.

Seldom has a November itinerary carried such grave implications for our national rugby coach as the business of putting bums on seats gathers fresh urgency within the IRFU.

The time is upon the Union to sell 10-year tickets again and, accordingly, reap the harvest of approximately €20m considered essential to the upkeep of professional rugby on this island. But just who will buy those tickets and at what price?

Ireland are currently a lowly seventh in the IRB rankings and, potentially, just two November defeats from a further fall that would prove catastrophic for our World Cup seeding in 2015.

The humiliation of that 60-point third Test whitewash in New Zealand followed a Six Nations campaign in which, for only the second time in a decade, Ireland managed just two victories from five.

Kidney will understand his employers' concerns.

The wretched economic climate allied to a demographic of existing 10-year ticket holders unlikely to be drawn to long-term re-investment demands the IRFU mounts a compelling sales pitch.

At a time when the so-called 'Golden Generation' of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara is beginning to ebb, that sales pitch cries out for the oxygen of hope.

If the November series fails to deliver, Kidney is thought unlikely to be in charge for the Six Nations. Hard commerce simply won't allow it.

Rodgers' faith in youth harks back to less affluent times

BRENDAN RODGERS finds himself depicted today as some kind of brazen maverick for seeding the Liverpool first-team squad with teenage footballers.

But TV money wasn't always there to facilitate managers as brokers, trading what might as well be inanimate stock.

The old way was to assimilate the best young players into first-team football with almost indecent haste.

When an aggregate attendance in excess of 50,000 turned up to watch the two-legged FA Youth Cup semi-final between Manchester United and City in 1964, the people knew exactly what they were watching.

Five of the City kids and three from United had already played for their club's senior team.

Necessity may be forcing Rodgers' hand at Anfield today. But maybe it's also taking football back from the accountants.

Irish Independent

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