| 14.7°C Dublin

Henry Shefflin exclusive: I didn't have DJ's pace or DJ's flair, but I had other attributes

Close

Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin pictured at the Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny after announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling last week. Photo: Mark Condren

Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin pictured at the Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny after announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling last week. Photo: Mark Condren

Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin pictured at the Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny after announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling last week. Photo: Mark Condren

The first day of the rest of his life took Henry Shefflin to a place of comfort, the gym. Early Thursday morning, he made the short drive to Mount Juliet, just to "clear the head".

Ritual has underpinned his life for so long now, he is not of a mind to abandon it. When we meet that afternoon, one of his first acts is to order a pint of water. He is still drawn, on reflex, to do stretches in the morning and, again, at night because Shefflin is so accustomed to waging war on his body, to suddenly desist would feel careless, maybe reckless even.

Close

Henry Shefflin speaks with Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent in Kilkenny this week. Photo: Mark Condren

Henry Shefflin speaks with Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent in Kilkenny this week. Photo: Mark Condren

Henry Shefflin speaks with Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent in Kilkenny this week. Photo: Mark Condren

So, for now, he finds reassurance in the clinking, metal sound of the weights. When will he train as part of a team again? He smiles thinly, acknowledging the strangeness of not knowing. Just for the fun of it, he texted Andy Moloney this week about Ballyhale's "plan for the year".

Andy is an old buddy of his from their college days with Waterford IT and one of two Tipperary men (the other being Colm Bonnar) who, last week, guided Shamrocks to the All-Ireland title. Henry was expecting some kind of short, sharp, colourfully-worded response. Instead, he got a small encyclopedia of detail.

The world has turned on its head in his time as a Kilkenny hurler. Framed against today's almost militaristic planning, the past seems wild, a little decadent almost. When he first hurled senior for Kilkenny, Bill Clinton was battling impeachment; Kosovo was at war; Payne Stewart was still alive and winning golf Majors. We forget the epochs that his career straddled.

In the scrubbed landscape of county hurling, his age (36) would have made him almost prehistoric now. This week, Andy's message was that even Ballyhale would probably let old Henry rest his bones for a couple of months. And his response was "not a chance".

Close

Henry Shefflin celebrates after winning the All-Ireland SH club title with Ballyhale Shamrocks on St Patrick's Day. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Henry Shefflin celebrates after winning the All-Ireland SH club title with Ballyhale Shamrocks on St Patrick's Day. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Henry Shefflin celebrates after winning the All-Ireland SH club title with Ballyhale Shamrocks on St Patrick's Day. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

The moment they go back to the field, Henry will be with them.

He felt both drained and blessed by the words that came his way this week. The consistent kindness of people, the sense of them not simply admiring his achievements, but liking him as a man, maybe meant more in the end than that great ocean of trophies. A few people said to him that the experience must have been like looking down on his own death.

He could tell what they meant by that, but the analogy implied the presence of grief. And he felt none.

When did he REALLY decide that 16 seasons would be his fill? Would it shock you to know that right down to 5.30pm last Monday, when he stepped into the privacy of his living-room to make that decisive phone-call to Brian Cody, there was still a voice murmuring somewhere in his head, tossing out little protests?

"For God's sake, it's March already..."

"You're injury-free..."

"Kilkenny could win this thing again..."

Deep down, he knew of course. But you don't walk away from, essentially, your second family without the odd winsome, backward glance. The decision had remained an abstract thing in his mind until the final whistle in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day. Then, suddenly, Ballyhale's story could offer no further insulation. Hurling needed to know his plans.

They went up to Carrolls Hotel in Knocktopher the day after and, hard as he tried, Henry couldn't escape the sense that everything was different now. Of course, the banter would not betray it. The Fennellys and TJ were fishing for information, spouting irreverent counsel and wondering would he be going in to Kilkenny training that Friday night. Colin Fennelly joked that he just couldn't see the attraction of retirement.

"When you retire, you're going to be old!" he grinned. "And you needn't think you're going to be hanging around with us young lads anymore!" Beneath the great peals of laughter, Shefflin's mind was racing.

"When I got up that morning, I felt a little preoccupied and that was unusual for me," he remembers now. "Normally I'd be really looking forward to that day. The celebrations always feel more intimate when you're back home.

"But I just had this sixth sense that this decision was going to have to be made now. Over breakfast, talking to Deirdre, I felt a little bit panicky even to be honest. I'd put it off long enough. Our run in the club championship had allowed me keep pushing it away and I was very grateful for that. But now that protection was gone.

Sun-splashed

"I particularly wanted to go out with Paul, my brother, that day. So he came up and collected me. But, having the first drink, I remember thinking, 'I don't really want to be here...' I just wasn't settled. I knew I had something that needed to be sorted."

Thursday dawned sun-splashed and beautiful and, having dropped down the hill to his parents' home to shoot the breeze "just to get a sense of what they were thinking", he went home, cut the grass, then took Sadhbh into McDonald's in Kilkenny for her seventh birthday

That evening, he made first contact with Cody.

The conversation followed a familiar pattern. Just chit-chat about anything and everything, a kind of dilatory exercise before settling down to business. "I'd like to meet up for a chat," said Shefflin.

"Sounds good," said Cody.

So, just after nine on Friday morning, he presented himself at the home of the Kilkenny manager and, over tea and scones, they both danced studiously away from articulating anything definitive. This would ultimately be Henry's call. And his alone.

So we choose to be the devil's advocate, wondering what if Cody had actively sold the attractions of another season to his most decorated officer? If he talked of still seeing an important role for Shefflin, would his head have been turned?

"I would hope not," Henry says firmly now. "Deep down, I think I knew the day before that, from a selfish point of view, now was the time to go. But I still wanted to sit down with him, speak to him. We've had such a strong relationship over the years, I felt it only right that I did that. So if he had said that... Maybe. But I would hope that, no, it wouldn't have changed my mind.

"I think, deep down, my mind was really made up. So I kind of knew going to see him what the conversation would be."

It has never been Brian Cody's style to petition a player to stay. His view is that a man must follow his gut in these matters, that equivocation only corrupts a squad, even if it happens to be coming from an all-time great. One thing he was never going to do that morning was beseech Henry Shefflin to stay.

"We had a great chat, about everything," Henry remembers. "I told him how much I loved the challenge, the training, but just wasn't sure what contribution he might envisage me being able to make.

"And Brian said, 'Look, you're not injured, which is great. You're in good shape, so it's totally your own decision. I can't give you any guarantees. But not being injured is a good start'. That said, you're not 20 anymore, you're not 30 anymore. You know 36 years old, your physical condition, your power mightn't be what it was a couple of years ago.

"'Go off an just reflect on it over the weekend and come back to me'."

From there, Shefflin headed to Dublin for a couple of business meetings, his head "spinning". He reflects now: "I suppose I sensed the direction I was going, but I still hadn't fully decided. The thing in my head was how much I was going to miss it."

Sadhbh's birthday party drew 30 children to the house on Saturday and, that evening, there was a function in the club for the presentation of Ballyhale's county championship medals. A special award was made to Shefflin recognising his achievement in winning a record tenth All-Ireland senior crown with Kilkenny last September.

The formalities proved quite clipped and unpretentious. He was presented with a beautiful watch, yet not invited to utter a single word of gratitude.

Instead, they beckoned Cyril Farrell onto the stage to talk about Shefflin's career and, after him, county chairman Ned Quinn. Perhaps they were simply sparing him the question.

Some of the younger lads like TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly and Joey Holden were heading away after to the nightclub in Langtons and, unusually, Henry and Deirdre chose to follow. "Again I think there was a bit of a realisation brewing."

Observation

Over breakfast the following morning, they were both tired, Deirdre making the salient observation that she could no longer see the energy in him to get back training for the county. That afternoon, they watched Kilkenny play Clare on the TV and, for the first time in a small eternity, Shefflin felt that he was watching his county hurl from the perspective of "a pure spectator".

There was nothing specific about the game to either encourage or unnerve him. Just a feeling that this team now had different ownership. "I think I had my mind made up going to bed," he reflects now. "That evening I'd gone out to have a few pucks against the wall, something that, hopefully, I'll always do.

"But I think I knew it was the end."

Work took him to Dublin again last Monday and it was maybe half five when he was back home and, finally, ready to jump. Something within Shefflin told him that he needed to afford this moment the minimum formality of home.

That it wasn't a call to be made from the M9 on car-speaker.

"Once I make this call, that's it," he said to Deirdre now, before taking himself into the living-room and dialling the number. He got no answer, but Cody rang back almost immediately.

Was the conversation strange?

"No, it didn't feel strange," he stresses now. "I was very comfortable with it because I had taken my time. I actually started joking with him. 'Right Brian, I've come to my decision, I'm going to retire'."

"His initial response was 'I'm sorry to hear that Henry'.

"And I joked, 'Yeah, you'll have finally gotten me out of your hair!'

"We both started laughing then. There was no emotion whatsoever. It was good. We spoke for a few minutes. He just said, 'To be honest, when I spoke to you on Friday, I felt that you were going to come back, that you wanted to come back...'

"And I was,'Yeah, of course I wanted to come back. But you had said and I had said... Do what's right for yourself. From a selfish point of view, this is the right decision for me.'

"He said, 'Look, it's been phenomenal what you've achieved. I can't thank you enough for all you've done and the way you've conducted yourself. You've got the very best out of yourself.' And that comment meant a lot to me.

"I mean it's well documented where I was coming from when I was 16, 17, 18. To get to where I am today is just crazy. I think to achieve that, you do have to get the best out of yourself. And it was something that was lovely to hear.

"Because Brian would have seen it at first hand. He probably knew when I first came in that I didn't have DJ's pace or DJ's flair, but I had other attributes.

"Like Brian and I obviously have a very good relationship, but it would have been a bit different last year. I wasn't making the team and I wasn't getting that much time off the bench. It was something I wasn't used to.

"But I realise that I achieved a lot because of him. And I'm sure he knows that we helped him achieve a lot too. It worked both ways."

On Tuesday morning, he rang Mai, his mother, with the news because invitations to the press-conference would be going out that afternoon. The Shefflins are close as a family, but largely undemonstrative. After they'd hung up, Mai texted a lovely message.

He felt nervous that some might see the formality of the announcement as something with too much of a corporate feel, something lacking in the kind of grounded expression he has always taken pride in. Given the likes of JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh had recently departed with simple statements, how would it be interpreted? But Shefflin wanted normality back in his life as soon as possible and the simplest route to that was a press conference.

"The reason for it was I didn't want people pulling me left, right and centre," he says now. "The media have always been good to me and I wanted everyone to have a fair crack of the whip. I just felt that by doing it this way, people would leave me alone after. The release of a statement just wouldn't have been enough, because there had been too much of a build-up. I knew that.

"I also knew that if I didn't talk, people might be saying 'Was it this?' or 'Was it that?', drawing their own conclusions."

By Thursday, the messages on his phone had backed up to a point where he hadn't got around to reading them, let alone responding. He reckoned there were maybe 60 he still hadn't looked at by lunchtime.

Shefflin says that, when all of this has blown over, it's to the club that he will gravitate now. Last year, it had been in his head that, when he stopped hurling with Kilkenny, he would stop hurling period. But no longer.

Buzz

"I spoke to Tommy Walsh last week, just hopping a ball really," he reflects. "'What's retirement like?' I asked. And Tommy was saying how glad he was to have the club to go back to. Just to still get that buzz coming up to matches. And I enjoyed it so much with the club this year anyway, there was not a chance I was going to give it up.

"I'm very fortunate too in that I'm going back in now into a very competitive club environment. I'm not going back just to be put out to graze for a year or two. I'm going back in to keep competing for honours. That arena is still going to be there for me.

"A few of the lads were laughing that they couldn't wait to see me down on the field the nights there might be only seven or eight lads training. But I'm actually looking forward to the summer now, not going into Kilkenny training under pressure to perform. Maybe now I'll just go off and play a club match, some of the children coming with me. That's something that I really look forward to.

"Then, when it gets serious later on, the challenge of trying to push myself, maybe even seeing how you might go against a county player. That's the type of thing that will drive me on."

For the immediate future, his autobiography needs finishing now. "The thing I want to try and get across in the book is 'This is who I am!'" says Shefflin. "I like to think it will be a very honest book and that people will see that what I got was, largely, down to hard work.

"I mean sometimes that hard work backfired on me and I ended up in trouble because of it, but my story is all about that work. I mean injuries became a major part of it too. I had four career-threatening injuries that were just kicks into the ribs each time. For three Christmases in a row I was injured.

"But I like to think that I learned something from every one of those experiences that will stand to me in the next phase of my life now."

His job as Head of Customer Recruitment with Bank of Ireland has helped Shefflin dip his feet into the basic philosophies of management and he doesn't disregard the possibility of, some day, taking charge of a team. In Carrolls, last Wednesday week, the joke was that his brand of perfectionism will inevitably, in time, set the Shamrocks' dressing room constitution. One of the younger players, Alan Cuddihy, told Henry he'd change clubs if that ever happened.

"Why?" grinned Shefflin.

"Because you'd want every single drill done perfect!"

He probably would too given it's only natural to expect of others what you've spent a lifetime expecting of yourself. One of the faces he was really pleased to see in Langtons on Wednesday was that of Joe Dunphy, principal of Ballyhale National School for 38 years and the true founder of the faith that has sustained life in the village for so long now.

Maybe every journey ends, ultimately, back at the beginning and, already you sense he is restless to be back in a Ballyhale changing-room. "I'll look forward to going down, even if it's only six or seven," he says now. "Just for the banter. Maybe people don't realise that the Kilkenny dressing room has changed an awful lot. Me walking in there now would probably feel very different. But walking into the Ballyhale dressing-room, you know Paul (Shefflin) is there, Aidan (Cummins) is there, Bob (Aylward) is there. The age profile is much closer to my own whereas in the Kilkenny dressing-room it definitely isn't. Maybe that was a little bit of a factor too."

He suggests it will be an "interesting year" for Kilkenny now, starting in Nowlan Park tomorrow and that relegation play-off against Clare.

"As long as Brian is there, the future will always be bright I think," he says. "But, if he goes, it's going to be a different place. Personally, I'd hope that maybe some of the younger players will express themselves more and come into their own now. That they won't be looking over their shoulders waiting for Henry or Tommy or JJ or Brian Hogan to say something. That they will be the ones themselves now.

Characters

"I know the characters in there and that opportunity is there for them. But, as Brian himself has said, it is a team in transition. That will bring its obstacles. But if you get all the players available again, the injured lads, the Ballyhale lads, put all of them down on a team list, I wouldn't like to be playing against them.

"What we've had has been an absolutely crazy time and I just hope that some of the younger lads saw how the older ones carried themselves through it. Brian has created that culture and it'll be interesting to watch the transition. I mean a step was taken in that direction last year and look what happened. They still won the All-Ireland. If they continue taking those steps, who knows?"

He won't be in Nowlan Park himself tomorrow, despite a county board invitation this week to maybe present himself at the side-gate for anonymity.

"No, it's a bit soon," he says. "Anyway, it's a big game for Kilkenny and I think the focus should be on the team.

"I'll just give it a bit of time and see what the summer brings."

Indo Sport


Related Content