independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Burning to carry the flame

Henry Shefflin's year of years might never have happened, as he tells Damian Lawlor

THERE were times last January when he would clasp his arm, slide from the car and shuffle stiffly into a meeting like an old man. People stared, but he just put his head down and went about his business.

"You'd be left alone around Kilkenny," Henry Shefflin says. "People leave you to get yourself right and anyone asking questions would mean well. But there were surely times this year when they would have seen me and wondered if I'd ever hurl inter-county again."

Shefflin has just won a ninth All-Ireland medal, the 2012 Hurler of the Year crown, a tenth All Star, and last weekend got behind the wheel to drive Ballyhale Shamrocks to their 14th Kilkenny senior title.

Yet, it's the dark days that command front-row seats in his consciousness.

"I'm after having so many brilliant days," he reasons. "Right now, every day is a brilliant day because I'm in such good form and it's much easier to be in good form when you are successful. You ask, 'when will all this stop?' But when I think back just a few months it was way different. I had a lot of very difficult weeks over January, February and March. That was as tough a period as I ever had."

Injuries have asked many questions of him in recent years, but he reckons the shoulder injury sustained against O'Loughlin Gaels last winter was the worst of them all, far more punishing than the cruciate injuries (2007 and 2010) he endured.

The cartilage that surrounded the ball and socket joint in his left shoulder was completely ripped away and six months of rehab was prescribed. Along the road to return he checked in with the Kilkenny backroom team, perhaps looking to remind them that he was still capable of doing what always came naturally.

"I went into Nowlan Park one Monday evening in March to meet with our trainer Mick Dempsey, the physio Kevin Curran and Brian Cody," he recalls. "There was no one around. We just wanted to see how I was going after the shoulder op. I was hoping to do a bit of fitness work and some pucking around but I couldn't even hit the ball with the pain.

"That shoulder injury was far worse than the cruciates, more mentally draining and it dragged on. The knees were slow to get right, but I was able to do some rehab along the way. Last winter all I could do was take a few tablets and rest. Nothing else. We had to stop the session after a while. I could see Brian's face – he was trying to be positive but I could see he was worried. I went home in a heap that night. It was devastating."

A few weeks later, he was back to test it again at the Hotel Kilkenny gym where Cody's team audition for their championship character. It was April, and Eoin Larkin and Jackie Tyrrell were already inside, stretching every fibre of their muscles. Shefflin joined them on the gym floor but not for long.

"The two boys were working away so I tried to lift a few weights myself but in the middle of one lift the shoulder went live with pain. I didn't say a word to the two boys because we were out in the championship a few weeks later. I just went to the changing room and could barely put on my shirt. I'd set comeback targets with both club and county and I wasn't meeting them.

"That night I went home with my arm in a sling. People see you lifting trophies and awards but that's what you go through to reach the finish line. Whenever I came back in from work earlier in the year, my three kids (Sadhbh four and a half, Henry three, and Siún, one and a half) expected to see a happy daddy and my wife Deirdre expected to see a happy husband. But hurling plays such a big part in my life and the injury was affecting me – and Deirdre and the kids are the ones to see that more than anyone.

"I don't want to play the role of martyr here. It's easier for us to deal with injuries and that because the big day comes around for us. I've been lucky to be with a highly successful team that has won All-Irelands – Tony Browne and other lads like him would train just as hard, do all the right things, but they might not enjoy the same success. I suppose if you love something you put up with the dark times."

Those low notes are a salient reminder to never get carried away. Not that he would. One could be forgiven for it though, after meeting Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth and carrying the Olympic torch, but Shefflin is as grounded as they come.

"Above anything else, carrying the torch was totally off the Richter Scale," he explains. "The most special part was walking out over the Cusack Stand on my own. I'd done a trial run a few days earlier to see if I was okay with heights and on the morning itself there were five or six people around me most of the time. But over the Cusack Stand I was alone and I looked out over Croke Park. That stadium is part of the reason I was holding the torch in the first place, because of what I do there. I knew my family was over in the Hogan Stand and I knew they were proud. That moment stood out for me."

As self-effacing as he is, Shefflin sometimes struggles to get his head around it all. Only 13 years ago he emerged from a poor display with the Kilkenny minors concerned he might never get a look-in at the top. Now, there are nights when he and Deirdre sit down at the fire to ponder exactly what has happened in the interim.

"When you win six or seven All-Irelands you're there thinking, 'Yeah, that's great – we'll look forward to next year now'. But there was something special about winning the ninth and topping it off with the Hurler of the Year," he accepts. "It's really been the first time that I have reflected on where I've come from to achieve that. I have to pinch myself a lot. Since this year's All-Ireland final that's been the one major thought in my head."

At various junctions this season it didn't seem like Kilkenny would even reach that final. They may have been resolute in their thrashing of a souped-up, flaired-down Dublin team, yet Shefflin was only warily treading back on the intercounty stage by then. "On the Monday night before the Dublin match I still couldn't puck a ball off the wall. And trying to tell Brian Cody that the next night at training was very difficult," he smiles ruefully.

"The pain used to come at me at different times, it wasn't there the whole time but mentally it was playing me. We got over Dublin and I went for an MRI scan with two weeks to go to the Leinster final against Galway. I went to meet the surgeon to talk about the shoulder. I was not right mentally."

Galway drove them off the pitch in the first half of that game and though Kilkenny salvaged some pride in the second half, outscoring their opponents, the underdogs prevailed by 10 points. The champions' obituaries were prepared and filed away while Galway were heralded as the next big thing in hurling; an intense, slick and tactical team of mavericks that had finally decided to gel together as a team. Yet, when he sifted through the rubble of that massacre, Shefflin found some comfort in the debris.

"I got something out of that second half," he reveals. "I got 1-1 in a couple of minutes, the first time all year that I had let go of the shoulder worries and just played my natural game. So while the outside world was writing us off I had something to cling to. People see sport differently and that's the great thing. As a team, though, we were so collectively disappointed that my shoulder worries went way down the list. From that day I didn't talk to the surgeon again. We had too many other issues to resolve."

Everyone expected a backlash against Limerick but it didn't materialise. At one stage the Munster men left the Kilkenny defence like a pierced bucket in the sea. They eventually plugged the leaks and went into the Tipperary game knowing that they couldn't afford to play in fits and starts anymore.

Gradually, they pulled Tipp apart with the day's tactics earning notoriety across the land. "I didn't realise at the time what was going on around us with Lar (Corbett) following Tommy Walsh and that," he insists. "I know people might find that hard to fathom but it's true. It was very strange what I did see. When I was taking frees I would hear the crowd shouting behind me – they were roaring at the four lads – and it would kind of put you off. Straight after half-time I heard the biggest roar. I was putting a free down and the boys were at the other end of the field running around. The crowd's roar nearly put me off.

"I saw bits of it going on but I was focused on winning breaking ball. The boys were running mostly when the ball was down at the other side of the field so when it did land our way I was only focused on where it might break to. It was when we sat down that night that I really saw how peculiar the whole thing was. I haven't even thought about it since, though. That was not the Tipp that we know. We'll probably never see it again."

Generally, teams are feeling the need to find something new when it comes to playing Kilkenny. But Shefflin says that while it's harder for a forward to get space in the modern game, hurling has not changed tactically to the extent that Gaelic football has. After all, the sliotar travels faster than the man. "Look, most hurling counties realise that you can't really win anything unless you go and attack at some stage," he states.

"Teams can try to put seven men in the backs and keep the score down but you never see that team win a match. Dublin nearly beat Tipp two years ago and Clare nearly beat us a few years back with those tactics but they didn't beat us. A lot of it is how you perform yourself. If a team continues to show good intensity and a high work rate they will eventually make space."

That's exactly how it played out in the drawn All-Ireland final when Shefflin entered a new realm as the game was ebbing away from their clutches.

He found space, created gaps, won frees and pointed them. It was arguably his most important outing in a Kilkenny shirt. Galway had all the momentum, they were buzzing; scoring goals and they had massive hunger. Kilkenny were looking at an Everest but Shefflin clung onto the edge for dear life until the team eventually got a foothold. There was a splendid lustre to his singlemindedness.

"The feeling I had that day was just brilliant," he concedes. "That's why I play sport. You get such a buzz being involved so much, maybe setting up a few chances and all that. It's always been a team game and even though we were struggling I knew things were going well enough personally. But the huge kick was that we were able to hang on and get back into it.

"Afterwards, the talk was that I should have gone for a goal from the penalty but I did the math pretty quickly and felt it might be hard for Galway to get two scores and draw with us. So I tapped it over the bar.

"Back came Galway, but I enjoyed the post-match analysis – people were maintaining that Kilkenny had lost their ruthless edge and all this, but it was high stakes. I did get brief flashes of doubt afterwards wondering if I had done the right thing – the whole 'what if?' scenario. Thank God it worked out. I could just as easily have been Public Enemy Number One."

After missing two penalties for Ballyhale in last Sunday's county final against Dicksboro, maybe it's just as well he didn't try for a green flag.

"Ah, all that stuff about the penalty, all this talk about the Kilkenny backs being over-physical, that just hops off me now," he smiles. "It comes with experience. Maybe other young fellas might get wrapped up in it – and I could understand why, because for a few years I was also concerned with what people thought.

"But now I'm happy in my own skin."

He scored 0-12 in the drawn final and 0-9 in the replay (maintaining his career average of nine points per game) but he kicks to touch on that front. Instead, he feels the men from the west were eventually won over by a combination of tactics and reinforced attitude.

"We got a right culture shock against Galway in Leinster, so we went man-marking them in the first All-Ireland final, like against Tipp in the semi-final. But for the replay Brian just went back to our own game and he deserves great kudos for that. The man-marking had gone well for us since the 2011 All-Ireland final and it was a big move to switch away from that. But we had to put faith in ourselves that we would play better and we did."

The second factor was Kilkenny's response when Galway got two David Burke goals in the replay.

"You'd be worried," Shefflin concedes. "Even in the first game, Jesus, such a roar when Joe Canning got their goal, but in the replay Eoin Larkin's run and Richie Power's goal were crucial. Although Galway had scored those goals it was only like a two-point swing because TJ (Reid) responded to one with a point immediately afterwards, then Richie's goal completely took the sting out of it. We kept working too, making space and winning frees and it got us across the line."

Before the replay, quotes from an in-depth interview Joe Canning gave were extracted and magnified in full media glare. They referred to Shefflin acting in unsportsmanlike fashion and insinuated that JJ Delaney was far from happy that Shefflin had pointed, rather than goaled, from the penalty spot.

Shefflin would be well in his rights to deliver a little ankle-tap of his own but he bears no animosity. "A good few people said it to me but it went in one ear and out the other," he reveals. "I don't really read the newspapers so I didn't see the comments. I just turned to a couple of people close to me that I would trust and asked them about it. They said the whole thing was blown out of proportion. Once I heard that I was happy enough."

Upon the final whistle Shefflin sought Canning out. "The whole thing got a lot of headlines and I would imagine Joe was under severe pressure for a while but I'd know Joe going back a while and we shook on it. I've spoken to him again since and he mentioned it but I told him not to even waste his energy explaining or talking about it any further."

He'll see what the club championship brings now and then he'll take a breather before going again next summer with Kilkenny.

"I just want to be able to sit down this winter and not have an operation to look forward to," he interjects.

Immortality is already assured so what keeps bringing him back? "The drive to get more," he replies. The journey's not for ending yet.

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