Vincent Hogan: My may not appreciate 'King Henry' until he is gone
Brian Cody smiled a smile that stored an ocean of small secrets. He said that Henry Shefflin's return was important: "I think for everybody". And as he stood there, the sunny commotion of Wexford Park ebbing to a resigned clatter, you knew that he was talking about more than a hurler.
In the 13 seasons through which Cody has guided Kilkenny, only Shefflin has started every championship game. Their stories are tethered so tightly together, one without the other is all but unimaginable now. Shefflin was relatively quiet against Wexford on Saturday evening, his contribution restricted largely to a nerveless exhibition of free-taking. Yet, his very presence on the Kilkenny team-sheet signalled a triumph for what Cody termed "the lonely hours of just working away on his own". A second ruptured cruciate ligament in three seasons had to explore Shefflin's resilience to a depth not many men of his vintage could reasonably expect to withstand.
On Saturday, Micheal O Muircheartaigh said that Shefflin's presence in Wexford Park was "one of the things" that made it easy to leave the comfort of a Dublin armchair and travel south. Now retired, the legendary broadcaster saw Ring, Mackey and the Doyles in their pomp. He considers Shefflin to be of the same church. So 'King Henry', the most prolific championship scorer in hurling history, gathered up another nine points in Wexford Park. And the hosts, quite properly, weren't gentle on him.
Lar Prendergast pulled on anything that came in their vicinity like a man trying to hunt bats out of a barn and, thereafter, Mick Jacob chose to work off pretty much the same template. And Shefflin just took what came his way with stony equanimity. He does something only the greats can do. He unites the stridently divided. He removes the spleen from things. There is a moment in every game when he all but excuses himself from the maelstrom and takes it to another place. On Saturday it arrived with maybe 13 minutes remaining, when a burst of acceleration took him into a clearing and -- without breaking stride -- he took control of a grounded sliotar. In a blur, the ball was over Wexford's crossbar and the congregation audibly gasped at this glimpse of genius, perfunctory and perfect.
To understand what it is that he achieves, it is always useful to study the frenzy all around him. Because Shefflin moves to independent music. We know that Eddie Keher and Jimmy Doyle were wizards in the 60s and 70s, but we know too that it was a different game they played. Nothing was ratcheted as tightly then. Training remained a two-night-a-week commitment of spring, not a year-long lifestyle choice. Compared to today, games were played at a desultory pace. True, Henry never had to contend with the third man tackle and he has been spared the culture of lawlessness that could descend on a contest, prior to television cameras positioning sheriffs at every corner.
He didn't inherit DJ's explosive heels or goal-threat either. He hasn't the natural venom to be a Tim Crowley or John Power on the '40' and, closer to goal, he's more of a floater than a human incendiary. In fact, for all his longevity, he's never become the virtual emblem of a county in the way of a Brian Whelahan or Ken McGrath. There's actually nothing he does that seems uniquely different. It's just the efficacy of everything combined.
The easy efficiency and grace. He is, in a sense, the prototype of Kilkenny's facility for locating swift, intuitive forwards. Men with minds as sharp as hospital scalpels. Above all, Shefflin thinks his way into the path of greatest opportunity. He reacts late just about every second eclipse of the sun. Break it down to fundamentals and his game is, more than anything, an essay in intelligence. Of course, all of this escapes him.
The way Henry talks about himself, you'd think he's a disappointment to his family. He is dismissive of what he's done, as if it amounts to no more than a toss of the dice. In St Kieran's College he was, reputedly, the last name on the U-16 hurling squad pinned to the school noticeboard. College stalwarts would say they turned him into a decent hurler, but hardly a star. It is said that he "wasn't a great minor by any stretch", making the 1996 Kilkenny squad only as a sub goalkeeper. He didn't get a trial with the U-21s in '98 and, it is said, was barely hanging onto the intermediate panel that same year until, legend has it, he exploded one Saturday afternoon as a second-half sub in an intermediate challenge. The county U-21s got wind of this and the rest, as they say, is carved in the tombstones of the defeated.
Yet, it is generally accepted that Fitzgibbon hurling was the making of Shefflin and it was certainly where Cody spotted this nascent talent in the colours of Waterford IT. Yet, Kevin Fennelly briefly brought him training with Kilkenny's seniors in '98 and Shefflin himself sometimes talks about that first night in Nowlan Park and how a humane Pat O'Neill declined the opportunity to pulverise him with a shoulder.
Within a year, he was lighting up the sky for Cody and, truth to tell, has been doing it ever since. Now he's no angel if an opponent forgets his manners but, without an edge, what hurler ever touched greatness? He has seven All-Irelands and nine All Stars now and, sitting in Wexford Park on Saturday, a thought struck that maybe hurling won't fully appreciate the genius of Henry Shefflin until he's sitting with the rest of us in the stand. The great consolation of an underwhelming game was that he looked in no hurry to buy that ticket.