Henry Shefflin: I was given a rundown of my inadequacies and became distracted. I took it personally
Maybe two years after one of my worst days hurling with Kilkenny, I was on a shinty trip in Inverness when there was a knock on the hotel room door.
Next thing there’s this strong Galway accent behind a big, smiling face that’s greeting me, “Howya Henry!” Gregory Kennedy and I were to be Ireland room-mates for the weekend. This felt a little bit awkward for a minute or two, as the bad day I’m referring to was the 2001 All-Ireland hurling semi-final.
I’ve often spoken about the impact that game had on me personally, never mind Kilkenny in general.
Let’s just say, it was a big turning point in our story.
It was the day Gregory basically gave me a running commentary on my own inadequacies as Galway put us to the sword. “Jesus, Henry, there’s a lad warming up, Cody is staring straight across at you. . .”
I became very distracted, complaining to the linesman, the umpires, everyone. It was an education. Gregory got sent off eventually, but he’d done nothing worse than get inside my head. It wasn’t anything remotely close to what we’re now aware has been happening in Gaelic football, but I suppose, at the time, I took it personally.
Now here he was putting his bag down beside the second bed and I didn’t know which way to look. But we went downstairs, had a couple of drinks and the awkwardness just disappeared. Over the years since, we’ve even exchanged the odd text and it’s all been perfectly civilised.
But when I reflect back to ’01 and the way they hurled us off the field that day, the thing that strikes me is that Galway didn’t close the deal afterwards. And that’s largely been their story throughout my career.
For years, the common refrain about Galway hurling has been that you just don’t know what you’re going to get with them. The subtext to that was an acceptance that they were always good enough to beat anyone. I don’t get that sense now. It’s as if people have almost given up on them.
True, my own personal experience with them still makes me see them as hugely dangerous. But the hurling public in general looks to have lost confidence in them now. I mean, it’s a real sign of the times that Dublin are marginal favourites for tomorrow’s Leinster quarter-final.
So it’s a massive game for Anthony Cunningham. He sent me a lovely text after my retirement and that meant a lot to me. But it strikes me that Galway have got to step away from this recent history of having good young players who seem to disappear off the face of the earth after a single campaign.
They never seem to kick on after a good season. Think of the sides that reached the All-Ireland finals of ’01, '05 and '12 – what did they do the following season? Nothing.
Dublin are interesting. When Anthony Daly stepped down, the natural thing to wonder was if it would be the end of them. But they impressed me in this year’s National League. Ger Cunningham has brought a bit of freshness to it and I think moving Liam Rushe back into the attack (where he started his career) makes sense.
Rushe is a good hurler whose natural instinct at centre-back was always to go forward rather than hold the position. So he was never an orthodox centre-back in my eyes. I think he gives them an out-ball in attack now that maybe they had been lacking in recent years. And Chris Crummey has looked a solid alternative at No 6 in the league.
From what I hear, Cunningham invests a lot of time working on the skill of his players. The greatest performance I’ve ever seen from a Dublin hurling team was when they blew Galway away in the 2013 Leinster final. The speed of their play, their use of the ball, their touch, everything was so sharp that day.
And I saw flashes of that again in this year’s league. Their performance in the semi-final against Cork was absolutely top-class for 50 minutes.
I really liked the look of Mark Schutte in the attack, but the loss of Niall McMorrow’s legs from midfield will be a setback. Bottom line, it will still be the spine of Daly’s team that hurls tomorrow, but that freshness of a managerial change can transform a team sometimes – even just the act of repositioning certain players.
I always think of us coming back from that ’01 semi-final defeat. We went to play Clare in Ennis in the following league and Peter Barry was played at centre-back, a position he held with authority from then on. I played my first game at centre-forward the same day against Seanie McMahon.
Those two changes, I believe, gave the team a more natural feel.
For the next four or five years, Peter and I were permanently positioned down that central spine, and Dublin will be hoping something similar happens now with Rushe maybe on the ‘40’.
They’re a tough enough nut to crack these days. When I think back to the 2013 championship, the general assumption would have been that, after our drawn game with them, we’d probably win the replay. But they were just men on a mission. You could see it in them. I’m not quite sure they’ve had that attitude since.
I see this as a particularly big year for Danny Sutcliffe. He’s a massive player for Dublin and I think his absence from the league semi-final was a significant factor in Cork managing to catch them at the death.
I suppose the eternal question facing Galway is deciding upon Joe Canning’s best position. My view is that the Galway hurling public sometimes asks too much of Joe.
That’s probably been the price to pay for his underage success – I have vivid memories of leaving the Kilkenny dressing room to watch big minor games in Croke Park and the name Joe Canning jumping instantly off the programme at you.
I distinctly remember doing it the day of the '06 All-Ireland final. Galway (and Joe) were going for their third minor All-Ireland in a row, but Tipp beat them easily.
That pressure has been on him then from his earliest days and, if I’m honest, I sometimes feel sorry for him having to deal with it.
Now I should say that I’m not sure the pressure particularly bothers him. You learn how to cope with it. I know there were times in my hurling career I was almost trying too hard to be Henry Shefflin, or at least that version of Henry Shefflin other people demanded.
I don’t doubt Joe has faced the same thing at times. It’s a pressure that comes from outside, not from team-mates, not from management.
But I’ve seen plenty of games too where Joe has been double-marked. Look, that wouldn’t be happening if he wasn’t a special player, but you need to have very good team-mates around you to be able to perform consistently when that’s happening.
I certainly wouldn’t have had the success I had without the calibre of team-mate I had in Kilkenny and sometimes that’s what it actually comes down to.
Joe’s best position?
Definitely full-forward if the ball is going in. But, if it’s not, you pretty much have to bring him out to half-forward. The trouble with this is you can end up chasing the game. It’s a bit like the 2010 Leinster final against us when Galway tried him in so many positions, but he just couldn’t get into the game. Those days happen.
Like, the same year he was unbelievable from wing-forward for Portumna against Shamrocks in an All-Ireland club semi-final. Still, if you press me, I’d play him at full-forward because of his goal threat. He’s a physically strong fella, so you can almost send the ball in any way you like.
I’ve been impressed in this league by the likes of Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion. They’ve got a bit of size about them too, so I think Galway will be looking to get quick ball inside. Maybe Anthony is looking for greater self-sufficiency among his forwards now.
It’s interesting that he got a new two-year term with the option of a third after last season’s disappointments. Maybe Galway are looking for the stability that they’ve lacked in recent times, and that’s probably a good thing.
One thing that strikes me about tomorrow’s teams is that they’re both pretty big. It could be a very physical game.
And when I think back to that '01 semi-final, what I remember most is Galway’s body language, the palpable message coming from them that they were going to take no prisoners. If you remember, Richie Murray floored Brian McEvoy with a dunt at the throw-in, laying down an immediate marker.
That’s the mindset I expect to see from Galway tomorrow. One that says they won’t be lying down for anyone.
My hunch is that they’ll win.