Friday 6 December 2019

A cameo, yes - but Henry the Great achieved a perfect 10 in those final minutes

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin celebrate after the game
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin celebrate after the game

Cliona Foley

They tried for so long not to let this summer's narrative become the fairytale of 'Henry and his Magic 10'. But, like many who have faced him at the dizzying height of his powers, even Kilkenny surrendered to its potency in the end.

In the 51st minute, with just a single point separating the sides, John Power's piledriver was heroically stopped by James Barry's face guard and TJ Reid quickly followed with a wide.

A minute later, Brian Cody momentarily swivelled his shoulders towards the stand and, with a subtle nod, gave the call. Number 22 was out of the gate like a greyhound after a white fluffy tail.

He clamped on the green helmet as his manager used both of his hands animatedly to explain exactly what he wanted from the warrior who was, remarkably, about to replace the expected shoo-in for 'Player of the Year'.

It would be another four minutes before Henry Shefflin crossed the white line and, when he did, there were surely dogs in Clontarf running for cover at the pitch and decibel level of the roar.

In at centre forward went the man who'll turn 36 in January, like a cork into a tsunami. He won a ball with his first touch but coughed up a cut as three Tipp men shunted him back over the sideline. In the next 13 minutes he touched the ball only five more times.

Apart from a successful block he broke down three more balls with only one positive outcome, yet he did, noticeably, provide the assist for Colin Fennelly's vital insurance point.

Yet he brought a threat and an energy, and what Richie Power called some necessary calm to the maelstrom.

When the final whistle came he reacted with the same exhilaration as his younger teammates, who piled onto him like a mound of discarded jerseys.

But this was Shefflin's moment and the sight of him quietly slipping in to sit beside Cody, who had already started the main post-match press conference, indicated the boss man's imprimatur.

"Henry's achievement is the one to talk about, the manager is still as young as ever," Cody chuckled.

There was actually a Benjamin Button moment earlier, when they were pictured together, wreathed in smiles, that took a decade off both of them.

The schoolmaster produced some apposite poetry to summarise his feelings. "He (Shefflin) has gone through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with injury," Cody said.

"To be here still at this level, to be challenging for his place and to win his 10th All-Ireland on the field of play is just mind-boggling stuff. I thought for a while it might never be done again but there are a few lads coming behind him who are keeping up as well," he grinned. "It is a magnificent time for Henry and some of the other players.

"He just wasn't sure he wanted to come on!" he joked. "The player who came off (Richie Hogan) is our goalkeeper for penalties and the penalty was awarded there, so we had to say 'stay where you are', because he's brutal at penalties. Henry said 'get me on for Christ's sake', so we did!"

"Yeah, they're tactical magicians on the sideline," Shefflin joined in, his place in the pantheon of Kilkenny's hurling gods earning him the sole entitlement to trade jokes with the man whose managerial achievement had matched his own as a player.

"I'd love to say it felt different but it didn't feel any different at all," he insisted.

"At that stage all you want is for Brian Gavin to blow the whistle so that you are All-Ireland champions. It's just self-satisfaction and relief that it's finally over and you are champions.

"All the other stuff can follow on and people can talk about it, it looks good in headlines and stuff but to be part of that!"

As the sun went down on another golden chapter in the Cats' history - and possibly also on their great warrior king and prince - the lyrics of Dublin troubadour Declan O'Rourke, who played at half-time, came to mind.

Neither may stick around next year "to put the rainbow in the sky and light the stars at night", but a year of league, Leinster and All-Ireland minor and senior victories underlined that, even without them, the great constellation of Kilkenny hurling will continue to sparkle.

Irish Independent

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