Tuesday 6 December 2016

‘I have massive respect for Donal Og but I was bulling at the Stepford Wives thing’

We couldn't understand them. They were fighting about gear, about food after training, about gym-access, about travel arrangements, fundamentally about respect, I suppose. All things we were getting without hassle from the Kilkenny County Board

Henry Shefflin

Published 20/09/2015 | 10:18

Henry Shefflin battles for possession with Cork goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack in the 2006 All-Ireland SHC final
Henry Shefflin battles for possession with Cork goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack in the 2006 All-Ireland SHC final

We're a curious sort of people in Kilkenny, a bit short on flame- throwing personalities. You might guess where I'm coming from here, where I'm going to. Let's just say the red-and-white minstrel show that was the Cork team in the noughties never quite rocked our boat. They didn't like us, we didn't like them. Maybe we gave each other good reason.

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They depicted us as robotic, conformist types who couldn't locate an original thought of our own.

Or, as Dónal Óg would famously put it, 'Stepford Wives'. We saw them as having a little too much of a welcome for themselves. Of being aloof, stand-offish, superior.

In my time hurling with Kilkenny, I'd say that Cork team is the only one with which we never quite managed an adult relationship.

You think of the epic All- Ireland finals we had with Tipperary in more recent times, yet there was never any difficulty decommissioning the venom in a dressing- room tunnel and unwinding together like grown men.

Some of the most enjoyable nights I've had at All-Star functions have been in the company of those Tipp players that we'd gone to war with the previous September. This never seemed possible with Cork. They radiated an attitude of preferring their own company.

It probably started with the 2002 League final. The GPA had held an EGM two weeks previously, and some kind of agreement was reached between the Cork and Kilkenny representatives that the game would be used as a vehicle of protest.

Cork had been at war with their own county board that year, a war that - by year's end - would plunge them into a players' strike. We had no such issues with those running the game in Kilkenny, and so I suppose we maybe weren't the best candidates for a demonstration.

Andy Comerford, Charlie Carter, DJ Carey and Brian McEvoy had attended that EGM in Portlaoise, but the rest of us didn't know the details of what had been discussed until the Friday night before the League final. Of the Kilkenny men at that EGM, Andy was maybe the only one in a position to beat drums. He was our captain and a strong one. DJ was off the panel, injured. Charlie and McEvoy weren't making the starting 15.

So it was Andy who briefed us on the GPA's plan for a protest at the League final. Shirts would hang outside shorts and socks would be worn down around the ankles in the pre-match parade. This outbreak of anarchy-lite would ensure fines for both county boards. A shot across the bows, then, from the workers.

As Andy began outlining the plan to us, Brian Cody stepped into the dressing room.

There was an edge to Cody that year. We'd been bullied by Galway out of the previous summer's championship, and that memory offended just about everything he held dear.

He was going to right that wrong and he made clear that no distractions could be countenanced. Just two months earlier, he had culled a few big names from the panel - men like Pat O'Neill and Eamonn Kennedy - making it crystal clear that no one had a divine right to be in his plans.

Now, Cody was like a one-man thunderstorm. He was having none of it.

'First things first, no fucking way are we having any hand, act or part in this protest,' he growled. 'Our only job on Sunday is to win the game. I don't give a shit what anyone from outside this camp is doing!'

Andy tried to hold his ground. 'No,' he said, 'we're going with what was agreed.'

'Not a chance, Andy,' Cody barked, his voice cold as hailstones.

And that, pretty much, put an end to it. No more discussion. We looked at our shoes, hoping Andy didn't keep following that bear into the woods.

The subject was closed.

Weakness on our part? If you see it that way, fine. I didn't and I don't. Here's the thing. I was 23, hurling inter-county for my fourth year and, being blunt, completely focused on proving that I wasn't the coward who'd run out the gates of Croke Park the previous August.

As a group, we were bemused by the protest. All the talk of turmoil in Cork simply said to us that they existed in another world.

Months later, they went on strike and, reading the newspapers, you'd find yourself thinking, 'What in the name of God is going on down there?'

That was the point of difference. We couldn't understand them. They were fighting about gear, about food after training, about gym-access, about travel arrangements, fundamentally about respect, I suppose. All things we were getting without hassle from our own county board.

As two groups, we were miles apart, and they came to resent this.

In time, that resentment led to a depiction of us as virtual robots, just doing what we'd been programmed to do. We weren't. We were doing what we loved.

The protest died a death, with Andy our lone demonstrator. Only seven Cork lads followed it through, but still, from that moment a gulf began to form: There was a sense that Cork and Kilkenny represented two starkly different philosophies. As they pursued strike action towards the end of that year against a hostile county board, Cork became the definition of the modern, selfless and intelligent GAA revolutionaries. In their own eyes, at least. We were, supposedly, old-world and weak.

That stung, but only like a light brush with nettles. We were winning things, you see. We beat them in that League final and, being honest, didn't exactly see anything in Cork as a template to follow.

There was a real edge to Cork in the '04 All-Ireland final. You could tell they didn't see much in us to like.

Cody asked me if I'd have any issues marking Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, pushing the idea that we were going to target their strengths.

I was fine with it. Seán Óg was having a phenomenal season (he would end up Hurler of the Year), but I was now facing my fifth final in six years and I didn't exactly feel like a child on a man's errand.

That said, we were in trouble on two different levels. Firstly, no matter how we tried to distance ourselves from it, talk of the three-in-a-row was everywhere.

It hadn't been done by anyone since the great Cork team of the '70s and we seemed to be endlessly reminded that Kilkenny's only previous three-in-a-row had been won in a committee room. Even though it was never spoken about in the dressing room, it was always there. You couldn't escape it.

Our second area of trouble was a little more fundamental: we just weren't hurling well. No matter what slant we tried to put on the season, there was no great flow to anything we'd done. In hindsight, everything about the team was creaking. We were in denial.

After an early Kilkenny score in the final, I deliberately met Seán Óg with a heavy shoulder. Instantly, he barrelled back into me with interest. If I was laying down a marker, he was responding with one of his own: 'You won't fucking knock me backwards!' That message came off every one of them that day.

And Cork blew us away. We didn't get a single score from play in the second half and, long before the end, we might as well have been sitting on the bus, facing home. They'd suffocated us.

I had a goal chance late on when John Hoyne drew the corner-back and threw me a handpass.

I could feel Dónal Óg advancing and remember thinking, If I try to catch this, I'll be swallowed up. So I decided to hit it first time, caught it lovely, but the sliotar bounced up off Cusack's body and he caught it.

In desperation, I threw myself in to make a block and, dummying as if to drive it out of the stadium, he flicked a ten-yard pass to a defender. Great big roar from the crowd. Fuck. Bad enough to lose, but to be a fella's punchline?

Now, here's the thing. I've talked about the tension between ourselves and Cork, but I liked a lot of that team as individuals.

I'd have known fellas like Joe Deane and John Browne from my college days. Sound men. I really liked Diarmuid O'Sullivan, even if there were days and games he'd try to terrorise me on the edge of the square.

Sully was good company. I got to know him on a few All-Star trips and I'd like to think there was genuine warmth there. Others, like Niall McCarthy and Ronan Curran, I could have a chat with and come away genuinely liking. And how could you not respect Seán Óg?

I actually texted him after that final: 'Congrats Sean Og, better team won. Well done'. I hadn't gotten to speak to him after the game and just wanted to do the right thing.

He texted back. My phone didn't turn to sludge.

Unfortunately, my mobile number appeared in some ads in the 'Farmers Journal' back then and a few smart boys went to town on me that night.

There'd been a lot of criticism of the state of the pitch, with people losing their footing, and, that night especially, strangers texted to tell me I had been 'skating on thin ice'. Hilarious.

The winter ahead would be torture.

Whatever about Galway and Clare, by '06 our preoccupation with Cork now framed everything. They had recorded 13 consecutive Championship victories and John Allen had, we heard, brought in Roy Keane to give them a motivational speech.

I remember bristling at the '05 All-Stars function at the way they stuck together on one side of the room. They were champions, the centre of attention. You'd be looking across, thinking, 'Who do they think they are?'

It was around this time they went on a Railway Cup trip to Boston and pretty much decided not to mix. Even their own Munster team-mates really only saw them the day of the game. An atmosphere developed.

Their '05 win had moved them on to 30 All-Irelands, against our 28. They were chasing three in a row.

Their new 'possession' game was being lauded as revolutionary. They were machine-like and polished. You'd swear they'd invented the wheel.

When O'Grady left after '04, Allen slipped seamlessly into the manager's role and they hadn't broken stride.

Our manager was very much back to the Cody of January '02. To him, reputations were dust now. He seethed at the depiction of us as some kind of prehistoric force. Years later, in his book, he would refer to a radio comment by Donal O'Grady after the '05 final, suggesting that Kilkenny probably faced a period of struggle. Maybe desperate people file all this stuff away, hoping you can pack it tight like gunpowder. Well, we were desperate people. Everything was on the line now.

We became a team with tunnel vision. Not so much obsessed with getting back to an All-Ireland final as with getting Cork. The rivalry felt personal.

Early that year, James McGarry spoke of building them up in interviews at every possible opportunity. Feeding the fire of their ego. They kept telling the world to form an orderly line and come see how a modern team prepared. We helped arrange the queue.

Fresh-laundered gear hanging up in the dressing room when they'd arrive for training. Drills so sharp they'd take the eyes out of your head. Pre-match warm-ups so finely tuned they guaranteed every player ten thousand touches in ten minutes.

Ice- baths.

Laptops.

Mind games.

For us, that whole season was a long drum roll towards getting a shot at them. Or, as Alex Ferguson might put it, knocking them off their fucking perch.

We came in from the long grass that summer. Cody was being written off, I was being written off. Come to think of it, the whole team was being looked upon as obsolete. It suited us perfectly.

Did we have doubts? Absolutely. That winter, my own head was full of questions. Are we doing something wrong? Are we not training as hard as they are training? Is our style obsolete? In the build-up to the All-Ireland final, we probably talked more about them than we'd ever done about an opposing team before. It felt as if everyone outside the group was expecting Cork to win.

Eight days before the final, we had a meeting and a bit of a stretching session in Hotel Kilkenny. Then we trained in Nowlan Park and JJ Delaney suddenly went down with a damaged cruciate. He was out of the final.

Poor JJ was absolutely devastated, but it was as if we just didn't have time for sympathy. I wouldn't say he was ignored, but you could sense that people were operating now with tunnel vision.

On the Sunday, we had a team meeting and one of the subs, Peter Cleere, decided to speak. Peter would have been very much on the periphery of things. But his words were absolutely perfect, and I took them as a sign that the subs were one hundred per cent in tune with the starting 15.

Cody had the blackboards out and segregated us into maybe four groups, each one invited to talk tactics. He left the floor open to anyone who wanted to speak and he made it clear he was open to suggestions. Dónal Óg Cusack's short puck-outs were forcing Cork's opponents to think differently. Brian had devised this plan whereby our two corner-forwards would drop back a little, a move that would then be replicated by the wing-forwards and midfielders.

If Cusack took a short puck-out to Brian Murphy, so be it. Murphy was a ferociously tight marker, but he wasn't the best striker of a ball. To me, it made sense to tighten up only around those who could deliver a ball 80 yards.

We were very conscious of the damage done by Niall McCarthy in '04 when he'd feign to run one way, then jink back in the opposite direction, losing his marker. This had, clearly, been a pre-arranged tactic: Cusack always anticipated the change of direction and found him with an ocean of ball. McCarthy could never be given that kind of freedom again.

The irony of the '06 All-Ireland final is that we were lauded afterwards for our tactical shrewdness. Allen said he'd never known a more tactical final. But we were so driven in that final, so hungry for the ball, we ended up doing the very thing we vowed not to.

Cork liked to draw you into the tackle, then release quick ball to the man you'd just left. We couldn't fall into that trap, we said. We'd stay with our men, avoiding the temptation to go rushing in.

We forgot that plan the moment the ball was thrown in. There's a famous image from that day of Seán Óg surrounded by four Kilkenny men. It was likened to the one of Kerry's Eoin Brosnan penned in by half a dozen Tyrone men during the '03 All-Ireland football semi-final.

The truth is, we couldn't help ourselves. Anything in red that moved, we just wanted to bury.

I've often joked about it with Brian since. He believes a lot of crap gets written about tactics in hurling and would have bristled at the idea that Cork were somehow managed smarter than us. Yet, just at the very point he was virtually being branded a dinosaur, Cody suddenly found himself lauded for Kilkenny's new tactical refinement.

And that on a day we left our tactics in the dressing room.

My view is that, above all else, intensity won that final. It was about as scientific as a bear attack. Our backs were phenomenal, Hickey completely blotting out the threat of Brian Corcoran and reminding us all how sorely his absence had been felt the year before.

And Aidan 'Taggy' Fogarty, in his debut Championship, proved the match-winner, scoring 1-3.

As it happened, drawing each line a little deeper under the Cork puck-outs worked perfectly. Their midfielders started going to the wings for puck-outs, only to find themselves marked by our half-forwards.

It seemed as if we had a spare man everywhere.

There was criticism of the pitch and the length of the grass afterwards, but we'd happily have played in a field of corn. Looking back, maybe the high grass suited us. But we were so focused, nothing was going to distract us. Cody talked afterwards of how so many people had written us off. He spoke of Hickey specifically and how he'd been depicted by some judges as too slow.

If there was an unusual amount of emotion in Brian's voice, it perfectly reflected what we were feeling as a group. Everything was on the line that day. Cork had been depicted as everything that we weren't. They wore little motivational tattoos on their arms in the final, which, no doubt, would have been held up as a masterstroke had they won. I suppose there's a pretty fine line between cleverness and bullshit.

Our very existence as county hurlers had been on the line that summer and, really, in our eyes that overrode any need for managerial gimmicks. There wasn't even much roaring and shouting in our dressing room before the final. People knew exactly what they had to do.

Fast-forward to the autumn of '09, when Dónal Óg Cusack published his book.

I was at a media function in Dublin one day and the journalists were fussing for my reaction to Dónal Óg's 'Stepford Wives' line, which was all over the newspapers. I hadn't read the book at that time and, at that point, I wasn't sure what 'Stepford Wives' signified. I asked the journalists to turn the tape recorders off because I had no intention of commenting on something I didn't understand.

About a month later, I was at home with Deirdre when one of the Stepford Wives movies came on the TV. I remember texting Tommy Walsh as it was starting: 'I see we're on TV Tommy!'

A short text back: 'So I see!'

Watching, the penny began to drop. I was bulling. I saw what Dónal Óg was implying. We'd no minds of our own. We just followed the leader. We were lapdogs. To me, he was out of order. Dónal Óg knew next to nothing about us as people. He was writing from a position of ignorance. I would have massive personal respect for Dónal Óg as a hurler and as a man. I've done a few GPA gigs with him and found him hugely likeable. But the 'Stepford Wives' thing made me angry.

Look, if Kilkenny players seemed unusually compatible with our county board, maybe it's because our county board was unusually progressive. In that context, I couldn't speak highly enough of Ned Quinn. Cork's story - their long battle for better treatment and facilities - was light years removed from ours. We'd see John Gardiner appearing on 'Prime Time' and none of it made sense.

Let me say this. I absolutely accept Cork's argument that they were fighting for a principle of better conditions for all teams, not just their own. In time, maybe less successful counties benefited from that stand. Maybe a lot of people now have the right mileage rate, the right food after training and the right gear because Cork raised their heads above the parapet.

Could we have done more in Kilkenny? Maybe we could. But I'd be the first to admit that, when it comes to hurling, I was always one hundred per cent selfish. It's tunnel vision.

As long as I was playing, I had three priorities: family, work, hurling. If that makes me a selfish person, fair enough. But I have a mind. I make my own choices. In the Kilkenny dressing room, nobody is led anywhere by the hand.

I suspect what differences that existed between Cork and us became magnified in their minds as we kept on winning and they slipped into decline. Dónal Óg's recollection of the National League game in '09, in which we beat them by 27 points, certainly went to a place I didn't recognise. We were a three-in-a-row team, they were coming back from yet another civil war. Planets apart. As we set about them that day in Nowlan Park, Dónal Óg read things into our body language that didn't exist.

I'll admit we were as psyched that day as we would have been for a Championship match. This was no run-of-the-mill League game.

There had been massive media focus on it because it was Cork's first day back from a strike. We knew it was different.

Then again, nothing specific was said in the dressing room before or after. Nothing was necessary.

When it was over, the attitude of the players was very simple.

'That's us, that's Kilkenny, that's how we do our talking!'

Were we going for the jugular? Absolutely. But do you honestly think we'd have been any less motivated to put up a big score if it was Tipperary in front of us? Or, say, the Clare team of the 1990s? I've never once stood in a dressing room and been told to ease up on a struggling opponent. You have a team on the back foot, you nail them. That's bred into us.

At the same time, as the score ran up that day, I did feel a stab of unease. The pessimist in me reasons that a big win will always, one day, come back to haunt you.

When that game ended, I walked over to shake hands with Dónal Óg. He would write off that moment, 'He looked me in the eye and most of what he was saying to himself was, "There you go now, Cusack, 27 points. Take that home with ya!" '

I read that, thinking Dónal Óg maybe sees me as a far deeper person than I am. The truth is that I shook his hand because I respect him.

I will admit there was a lot of whooping and hollering, the crowd going absolutely ballistic. That's what they do when we hurl out of our skins against a team regarded as a threat.

I consider Dónal Óg an iconic GAA figure. He brought goalkeeping to a new level, and the courage he has shown off the field will forever be recognised by anyone with a healthy GAA brain. But he misread us in Kilkenny.

Irish Independent

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