Wednesday 7 December 2016

'Everyone was buzzing - I felt a bit of a zombie in their company'

Being left out of Kilkenny’s first 15 became less of a problem for me than not knowing where I stood

Henry Shefflin

Published 20/09/2015 | 19:19

Alongside Brian Cody in Nowlan Park in 2013, just before being brought on as a sub against Tipperary in the All-Ireland SHC qualifier
Alongside Brian Cody in Nowlan Park in 2013, just before being brought on as a sub against Tipperary in the All-Ireland SHC qualifier

I'm not sure I have greater respect for another man alive than I have for Brian Cody, and there is no doubting his utterly pivotal role in my hurling career. Do I consider him a friend? Yes. But will we ever be buddy-buddy types, on the phone every second evening, chatting away for hours? No. That's not him and it's certainly not me.

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After a while, not making Kilkenny's first 15 became less of a problem in my own mind than simply not knowing where I stood. I felt communication could have been better and I told him that.

Eventually.

There were certainly fewer chats between us as the dynamic of the relationship shifted. Previously, it had been relatively simple in the sense that I was always going to be selected. Now that that was no longer the case, I suppose both of us were less comfortable.

And so the mental challenge became the hardest part of 2014 for me. If anything, maybe I had become too comfortable in my relationship with management throughout my hurling career. I had had a connection with Brian that, if I'm honest, the other players didn't really have. Suddenly, that was gone and it left me feeling a strange disconnect that was new to me.

But Tommy Walsh was going through much the same thing that season, and I never heard a word of complaint from Tommy. And I've often marvelled at Aidan Fogarty, one of the most resilient characters I know.

My career was spent largely oblivious to the frustrations of those working every bit as hard as me, but getting only snatched little pockets of game-time off the bench. In 2014, I came to understand just how psychologically difficult that role can be. I kept hoping, of course, kept driving forward, kept believing that I could break back in.

Picture

Before the All-Ireland semi-final, I'd gone well against Muckalee in the local championship and I was moving strongly at Kilkenny training. When we went away for a weekend in Carton House, I suppose the picture became clearer.

It was the morning of an A v B game and Mick Dempsey called me in to see management. Eoin Larkin had been summoned before me. It's a funny kind of dynamic, stepping into a room with the entire management team sitting facing you at a table. Brian did all the talking.

"Look, Henry," he said, "we know you like to have clarity about where you stand and it's different for you this year. You've had your injuries, you've missed a lot of training. Do we still see a role for you with Kilkenny? Very much so. You still have a big role to play with this."

This was precisely the reassurance I craved. But he continued . . .

"Look, you're not 30 any more, you've had massive injuries, it's a testament to you that you're still here sitting in front of us. But we can't guarantee anything. Today we're playing that A v B game, you'll be in the Bs . . .'

He explained that being on the Bs didn't necessarily mean I wouldn't be starting against Limerick in the All-Ireland semi- final.

He told me I was moving well and to keep it going. "You'll be marking Brian Hogan today. . ."

None of the other lads spoke. "Have you anything to say?" I was asked. I hadn't.

This was maybe half-eleven in the morning, training was at one. I walked outside, my head a bit frazzled now. I'd been really positive for the previous few weeks but, deep down, I knew now I wouldn't be starting against Limerick.

I went out into the grounds of Carton House and just walked around for a while. When I went back in, the banter in the group was going full pelt, everyone buzzing, laughing and joking. I felt a bit of a zombie in their company, but there was a training match to play and I needed to get my head clear now. I needed to hurl.

The A v B match that day was a cracking game, everything Brian could have asked for: Tommy roaring and shouting, Mick Fennelly with us on the Bs, everyone just hammering into it. The Bs almost beat the As in the end and I hurled well enough, scoring three or four points. But, for some reason, I went home feeling bruised.

The Saturday week before we played Limerick, I was on the Bs again in our last proper training game and did not hurl to my usual standard. It was a dirty day in Kilkenny and, much as it pains me to admit it, my heart just wasn't in it. My overriding emotion at that time was one of growing disappointment. One moment I was thinking, 'I'm surely good enough to be starting!' The next, wondering, 'Jesus, am I?'

I rang Brian the following Monday. Maybe I was forcing the issue now, maybe it wasn't the wisest course of action to take, but I felt I had to do something. Brian told me: "Look, just say what you have to say now . . ." I was delighted to hear him say that. I had so much stuff I needed to get off my chest and I knew I needed to do it one to one.

That call settled me a little. It gave me, at least, a sense of where he saw me.

The tone of the conversation was different from the one at Carton House, less formal, I suppose. Brian talked about another reason I wasn't starting: he worried about the possible implications of having to bring in a sub for me. My profile meant that taking me off in a big game would probably trigger a burst of energy from our opponents, not to mention their supporters.

I could see the logic. Our chat essentially confirmed that my days of starting for Kilkenny were at an end. Still, you keep looking for the fairytale, don't you?

I would come on in the middle of a monsoon against Limerick and be met straight away by a welcoming shoulder. I've always hated the bullshit of a sub being hit straight away by a defender's shot when he goes in but, to be fair, there wasn't much in what Gavin O'Mahony did that day. It was just his way of saying, 'We're the big boys here today, be a good chap now and keep out of the way!'

There's an absolute compulsion to respond in these situations and I think I gave him three dunts in return. The crowd loved it and I felt, as a team, we maybe took some energy from that moment.

But the first ball I got then, I was knocked backwards on to my arse, Limerick being awarded a free. There were defenders swarming all around me, roaring. Nothing especially personal, just a few letting me know they believed they had my measure.

The game had a huge intensity and, shortly after Richie Power and I came on, Limerick scored their fifth consecutive point to take a two-point lead. But from the moment Richie got us a goal, I always believed we were going to win.

There's no point pretending that my tenth All-Ireland medal came in the fashion I would have chosen. I wanted to be starting.

It was not what I dreamed of, and all the way through the season I put a fierce amount of pressure on myself.

No question, the personal unease never fully lifted. For the drawn final, I was called down out of the stand three times before being eventually put on. Taggy had been the first forward sub in after maybe 50 minutes and, shortly afterwards, I got the signal to get ready.

I spent about five minutes warming up on the line before James McGarry told me to go back up into the stand. Soon after, another signal to get ready and this time maybe ten minutes spent stretching and waiting. Brian was just a few yards away, totally consumed by the game.

What could I do? Tap him on the shoulder? Start tugging at his sleeve like I used do as a child with Joe Dunphy in Ballyhale National School?

You feel as if the whole stadium is looking at you when, in reality, everyone is completely spellbound by an extraordinary game. Maybe the only people who could see me were family.

In retrospect, I could have no issue with Brian. The game was crazy, just charging along independent of logic, pattern or form-line.

In those circumstances, a manager is only human if he keeps changing his mind. A forward might be having a nightmare, but just one little touch wins a stay of execution.

'Jesus, we can't take him off, he's coming into this . . .'

But there are 82,000 people in Croke Park, and you're standing there, conscious only of your own predicament. I felt almost like an old man in the end, flicking out his leg just for want of something better to do.

Eventually, I made the decision myself, turned away and climbed back up into the stand.

When the third call came, there was probably a bit of impatience visible in my body language. I went down and put my helmet straight on, as if to say, 'Am I goin' on or not?'

Finally, with three minutes to go, I was sent in to full-forward with instructions to try to hold the ball up there. We were three points up as I was going in, then BANG, BANG, BANG, Tipp got three scores to draw level.

Suddenly, we were deep in crisis mode, similar to the drawn game with Galway in Leinster. I drifted out to centre-forward, desperate to get the ball in my hand. I almost did, too, but Mickey Cahill just flicked it away and in a matter of seconds 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer was lining up that monster free into the Canal-End goal.

I fully expected him to score and was just desperate to get myself into the general vicinity where Eoin Murphy's puck-out would be landing. They had to go to Hawk-Eye to establish that Bubbles' shot was fractions wide.

The final whistle initially left me with entirely selfish thoughts.

When we'd drawn the 2012 final, I departed the field, completely pumped by the performance I'd just given. Now I was, it seemed, a three-minute man.

Afterwards, maybe mindful of my place now, I joined the other subs - lads like Ricey, Joe Brennan and Joe Lyng - in the warm-up area, where we just pucked around, killing time.

I remember Brian speaking exceptionally well in the dressing-room, basically making the point that we would drive on and make sure to finish the job in the replay.

Before going home, we slipped into the CityWest Hotel in our tracksuits for dinner, a big crowd already gathered there, having bought tickets for what they hoped would be a coronation. But with a replay to prepare for, there was minimal interaction between players and supporters now. The priority was just getting fed and getting home.

Inevitably, I wondered if there might be an opening for me now.

Some of the forwards hadn't gone great and the general view seemed to be that Kilkenny would have to make changes. I trained on the As the next Friday and was feeling good, but returned to the Bs the following Wednesday.

Priorities

In any event, management had other priorities now. The concession of 1-28 in the drawn game pointed to big defensive fault- lines, and the backs were held back after training one night to have a meeting among themselves.

I think the general consensus among them was that, because of Tipp's brilliant forward movement, no one had been entirely sure just who was marking who. That wouldn't happen again.

I was told a week beforehand that, in the event of a change being needed, I'd be the first man in this time. This was music to my ears.

The game proved much tighter than its predecessor, and I took it upon myself to say a few words at half-time, as did Brian Hogan. I just mentioned how it reminded me of the '02 All-Ireland semi-final against Tipp with its sense that the game was there for us if we just upped things slightly.

The fact that both Hogie and I were comfortable speaking reflected just how tight the group had become. I can honestly say I don't remember a more united group hurling for Kilkenny in my time.

The bond between young and old was really strong. I think it's what got us over the line.

I got on for Richie Hogan in the 58th minute and didn't manage to decorate those last 12 minutes of my inter- county career with anything especially epochal. But I did feel involved again, I did feel part of the story.

Richie Power got a critical goal shortly after my introduction and, almost instantly, his younger brother John drilled home another.

I basically went in to centre-forward, haring around the place, just trying to make my presence felt. My final act was to set up Colin Fennelly for the last score of the game, a beautiful feeling.

At the final whistle, all the emotional uncertainty I had experienced through the year just washed away. Standing there, as the first man to win ten All-Irelands, I was struck by the scale of the journey I had travelled from those childhood nights with my brother Paul, imagining All-Irelands in the squash court at home.

Those seconds, immediately after the final whistle, I will cherish for the rest of my days.

I lived the dream.

Irish Independent

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