‘I hope they know now that they’re not too far away,’ says Galway boss after underdogs push holders to the brink
At times during the second half, as Galway thundered into Limerick as if their lives depended on winning the next puckout, the next 50-50, the next squabble for possession on the Hogan Stand touchline, Henry Shefflin was like Galway’s 16th man.
Push the clock back a decade and it was here that Henry the King produced his crowning half-hour – in the second half of the drawn 2012 All-Ireland final. Against Galway.
Now, as yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final crackled with an electricity that few had anticipated in advance, Shefflin was still playing every ball and, for a while, railing against every decision of officialdom.
Cross words led to a brace of yellow cards – for Shefflin and Limerick’s coach Paul Kinnerk – after Cathal Mannion had been called for an over-carry. Diarmaid Byrnes pointed the resultant 48th minute free, restoring a threadbare lead for the champions.
Not even a booking softened Shefflin’s cough, though – partly because during the midpoint of that pulsating second half, the calls kept going against Galway.
David Burke pinged for an illegal hand pass – this time Byrnes missed the free from halfway.
Soon after came another touchline tangle of arms and legs and bodies. As Tom Monaghan complained that he’d been stood on, Waterford referee Thomas Walsh signalled a free the other way to a chorus of Galway boos – this time Byrnes nailed the free.
Shefflin was a coiled spring during this pivotal period: if anyone had ever wondered about his commitment to the maroon cause, not any more.
In many ways, after an oscillating maiden campaign where perceptions about Galway had veered between the two polar extremes of dark horse contenders and potential lambs to the Limerick slaughter, this felt like a coming-of-age performance.
Only one problem: they still lost.
“Especially coming up against such hot favourites, you speak a lot about getting a performance and I would have spoken about that myself – that’s what we needed. And then you get the performance and you don’t get the result and, you know, sport is cruel,” a composed Shefflin reflected when the dust had settled on a wonderfully flawed epic and Limerick had prevailed by three points, all scored beyond the 68th minute.
“You give it absolutely everything, and then it’s all just over and you just come up a little bit short and there’s a lot of ifs and buts.
“But, I suppose, from a management point of view and from a group point of view, we said we wanted to do ourselves proud on the field today and I think we achieved that,” added Shefflin.
There are no medals for moral victories, however, and the most decorated hurler in history knows that. But his reaction to one of the twin imposters was still imbued with a touch of class.
There was a warm handshake with John Kiely (let’s not go there) and when asked afterwards about those disputed second-half calls, it quickly became apparent that he wouldn’t be the purveyor of any ‘we wuz robbed’ headlines.
“Look, I’m not going to come out...” he began, before making a quick swerve to stress: “Limerick won the match and they were the better team. I did feel there was a 10-minute, 12-minute spell in the second half there, after we got the goal, that there were a few marginal calls that didn’t go our way, yes.
“But I don’t think they all went over the bar either and in the overall context of the game… you know, it comes and goes a little bit, to be fair.”
Did the better team lose?
“I don’t know the answer to that question. I’d have to watch the match to tell you, because I think you get so emotionally enthralled in the game, you don’t really know.
“I do know we had a very good opportunity to beat the double All-Ireland champions, and we just came up short.”
To dissect the reasons why, you could start with the 19 wides – four more than Limerick. Or the fact that, after Brian Concannon’s unstoppable equalising goal two minutes into the second half, they “never got that flow”, that necklace of scores to build a two or three-point cushion.
Instead, a one-point lead swayed back and forth before Limerick’s decisive late surge.
Shefflin conceded that “our shooting efficiency let us down” and this, allied to coughing up a few silly first-half points, came back to bite the underdogs. “But look, to be fair to Limerick, they’re true champions.”
Question is: can Galway become that on his watch? Shefflin alluded to some of his own initial doubts – and how his opinion changed after a league game last February.
“Ye would have been around some of the performances last year and you’re kind of saying, ‘Where are this team at?’ I’ve often referenced it to the lads, I probably wasn’t quite sure myself,” he admitted.
“But we went down to Limerick in the national league, and that night I came out of Limerick saying, ‘Jesus, do you know what, there’s something in this group’. And I think we can say that again today. Obviously we’d just love to be in the All-Ireland because that’s what those players want to do.
“But did they give it everything?” he added, before immediately answering his own rhetorical question. “I think of someone like Gearóid McInerney, who got injured two weeks ago and pushed himself and did everything… he was icing and in cryo chambers. That’s what these players do behind the scenes and they put in a massive effort to go out and play in a coliseum like that.”
The manager couldn’t say if this will be the springboard to something bigger, surmising that “the answer to that will be if Galway are back here next year and it’s a different result”.
But he added: “I hope they know now that they’re not too far away. Ye’ve all said it and I’ve said it, there’s loads of good hurlers up there so it’s just trying to put the small fine details to see can you go to the next level. Some of these lads have been there, they’ve won an All-Ireland so you’d hope so.
“I saw some of the club championship games last year in Galway and it wasn’t great, so I think it’s important now that they go back and try and increase the performance levels of club players that are feeding into the county squad.”
That challenge can wait. If Limerick are to be toppled, it will be by Kilkenny but not their erstwhile King.