Dermot Crowe: 'Sheedy's men prove their mettle to stand in history's way'
"Whether you like it or not, five in a row brings its own pressures." - Liam Sheedy
Even with hindsight's benefit, it is scarcely any more conceivable that Henry Shefflin trained full pelt just 17 days after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The storm of public interest whipped up to see if one player would survive a training session 10 days before an All-Ireland final did little to enhance Kilkenny's focus before they set foot in Croke Park on that fateful day on September 5, 2010.
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And where games are won, it is said, long before the day itself, they are surely lost long before it as well. In Nowlan Park on that surreal Wednesday evening, a crowd estimated at 8,000 turned up to see Kilkenny train ahead of the first All-Ireland final of the new decade. A sizeable crowd is expected leading up to a final, but this was an extraordinary final and an extraordinary attendance. The distance teams need was surrendered in the frenzy. That separation of crowd and team no longer existed.
In bountiful numbers they came to the city that evening driven by the prospect of seeing the five-in-a-row champions in waiting. They were swept along on the tide of rising anticipation. There was more to it than that of course - the burning curiosity over the welfare of their key player. In the semi-final against Cork Shefflin tore his cruciate, a nightmare injury needing several months of rehab. Now, little over two weeks later, he was taking a full and active part in a training session with Kilkenny.
The troubled artist, Vincent van Gogh, when explaining religion's appeal to him spoke of the human need for the "boundless and miraculous". Sport follows that prescript too. All of Kilkenny fully subscribed in the willing of Henry Shefflin to defy medical logic to be able to play in the 2010 All-Ireland final.
For Kilkenny, there was an inherent risk. Throughout Brian Cody's management reign, no player was deemed indispensable. Idolatry went against the Cody philosophy. But Shefflin, by his stature and the psychological reliance on his consistently high performance levels, came so close to being indispensable as to make no difference. If they could have him play, and a miracle be worked, then who would reasonably argue against it. It was a gamble worth taking.
And so began a process of intensive rehabilitation, to strengthen the other ligaments supporting the knee under the guidance of Gerard Hartmann in Limerick. He put Shefflin, and teammate John Tennyson, who suffered a similar injury before the Cork match, through a series of punishing four-hour sessions in a bid to beat the odds. Tennyson's story was even more wondrous but he did not have the same scrutiny nor a fraction of the hysteria.
Before the final, Dr Pat Duggan, a member of the GAA's Medical, Scientific and Welfare Committee, told journalist Cliona Foley of his reservations. While he acknowledged the efforts of those attempting to offer Shefflin a lifeline, and the player's own understandable desperation to play, he warned of the implications of creating false expectations.
"I have seen many cruciate injuries and I find it absurd that two weeks' rehab, no matter how many hours a day it was, could compensate if the knee was unstable secondary to an acute tear," he stated frankly. "It is likely that, irrespective of what injury Henry suffered, his knee was fundamentally stable."
Cryotherapy sessions, where players expose themselves to extreme sub-zero temperatures, which Shefflin and Tennyson both endured, would also have had minimal effect in the doctor's view. But hope is boundless. Shefflin was named in the team to take on Tipperary, as was Tennyson, Kilkenny aiming for immortality, to go where no team had ever gone before, in football or hurling.
Kilkenny were 21 matches unbeaten in the championship and hadn't lost since Galway defeated them in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final. From that starting point, a second disappointing season, they became almost invincible for a time, first conquering Cork, ending their attempt to win three in a row the next year. That win in the 2006 final altered the way hurling was played with a smothering of the Cork short game that relied on a demonic work-rate.
Limerick were unable to match them the next year and Waterford capitulated the year after that, meeting Kilkenny at the summit of their powers, the final that ended with the manager declared man of the match.
But by the following year Tipperary, managed by Liam Sheedy, had made their presence felt and were desperately unlucky not to win the final, with a fit Shefflin on the field. The same manic work-rate and robust physicality that characterised Kilkenny was now visible in Tipp's play. When Tipperary lost to Cork in the 2010 Munster Championship, by 10 points, they looked to have buckled under the weight of expectation. The qualifiers offered a road to redemption, and they worked their way back, step by step, and went into the final as outsiders.
Shefflin took his place at centre-forward, Tennyson at centre-back in the absence of Brian Hogan, injured in the semi-final. Shefflin lasted just over 12 minutes before the knee gave way, running on to a breaking ball that fell in front of Shane McGrath and Michael Fennelly. He bent down to lift, raised the ball on the move but it fell from his hand. As he attempted to turn the knee went. In the limited time he spent on the field, although he missed a first-minute free, he had been the most active Kilkenny forward apart from Eoin Larkin.
Tennyson, remarkably, stayed the course and gave a full-blooded performance. He would delay his operation until after his club Carrickshock played the county final, knowing the risks and potential for long-term damage.
Kilkenny fought heroically to save themselves. Having conceded an early goal to Lar Corbett, fallen six points in arrears and lost Shefflin, they reduced the lead to a point by half-time, with a well executed Richie Power goal in the 32nd minute. A few minutes after half-time, playing with the wind, they were level when TJ Reid cut over a line ball.
But Tipperary seemed destined to prevail. The second Tipp goal came soon after Eoin Kelly had restored their lead from a free. It was the pick of their four, Gearóid Ryan playing a beautifully flighted ball down to the 19-year-old Noel McGrath who instinctively switched the play with a reverse handpass which put Corbett through on goal unhindered. The finish was emphatic, Tennyson's hurl flying past in vain. Two minutes later McGrath reacted quickest to a dropping ball to claim another goal and the lead was seven points.
Kilkenny pared that down to three nearing the hour. Tipp extended it back to six. With two minutes of normal time left sub John Mulhall left four between them with an outrageous score. But Tipp, featuring five under 21s, were irrepressible. Sub Seamus Callanan had already scored two points. Now another sub David Young set up yet another, Benny Dunne, for a rousing score in the first minute of injury-time. Dunne had received a red card in the previous year's final. From the puck out another replacement, Seamus Hennessy, came bounding up the field to shoot off the stick and restore a six-point lead and Tipp's coronation was complete when Corbett had his third goal in the final minute of injury time.
Corbett, the first man to score three goals in an All-Ireland hurling final since 1970, had done much to end Kilkenny's dreams of five in a row. It did not stop them winning more All-Irelands and the final score of the 2010 final had Michael Rice, Shefflin's replacement, tearing through tackles before firing over a point. It made no difference on the day but in a way it spoke volumes for Kilkenny's future intentions. They weren't going away. Shefflin, having recovered from his injury, would return to win a record 10 All-Ireland medals, three more coming in the wake of his cruciate misfortune in 2010.
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