Excitement building already out west as Kilkenny legend takes on task of getting Galway back on track for All-Ireland success
Hands up if you saw this one coming. Earlier this week, it was circulating that Davy Fitz was going to be heading up the road to take the hot-seat with the Tribesmen but then, only 24 hours later, came the bombshell news: the king was to become the new Galway manager.
Henry Shefflin’s appointment caught the hurling landscape by surprise. None of us saw this coming and, to me, it’s on par with Páidí Ó Sé becoming the Westmeath football manager back in 2003.
It’s no surprise that excitement levels have gone through the roof out west and you can only imagine how the Galway fans, and particularly the players, must be feeling.
To me, it’s a move that makes a whole lot of sense, for both Shefflin and Galway hurling. Whoever went into this job would have seen the attraction of working with a good group of players, and relished the challenge of picking things up from such a low ebb in their championship exit. In recent years, you can be sure Henry would also have watched his former teammates cutting their teeth in inter-county management and thought: I want a piece of that.
Who knows how all this will pan out, but these are the five key things I believe he must do to get Galway hurling back on top.
1. Build a strong backroom team
The bar these days is set by Limerick, and there’s no doubt John Kiely’s backroom team has been a huge factor in that. For Shefflin, it might hinge on the financial backing at his disposal, but he should be able to surround himself with top, top guys.
Think about it. If he picks up the phone and wants you to be part of his setup, you’d find it extremely hard to turn him down, given his experience and the depth of knowledge he has about the game. I’m sure he’ll bring one of his own with him but, after that, it’ll be about scouring the county and the country for top-class personnel.
Who to choose? I think he’ll go after someone like Damien Hayes or Ollie Canning and what’s key is getting a good trainer in with them. At Ballyhale, he had his brother, Tommy, who did an enormous amount of work with them, and if things are to run smoothly he’ll have to have a really good coach alongside him. He needs to take his time with that choice. It’s a huge one.
2. Make some hard calls
All the talk will be about convincing Joe Canning to return, but for me Joe has done the right thing for himself and for the future of Galway hurling. By stepping away, it might make Henry’s job easier when it comes to making the tough choices concerning the remaining heroes of their 2017 All-Ireland success.
There are others in the panel of a similar age to Joe and if your top player is moving on, then if there are lads who aren’t getting the hint, it could make it a lot easier for Henry to tell them, ‘Sorry, but you’re not part of my plans’.
It doesn’t have to be ruthless. A lot of inter-county managers have that chat behind the scenes, sitting down with players and telling them they’re not going to be part of the panel going forward, giving them the opportunity to announce it on their own terms.
It’s not age alone that will decide it, of course. Henry might look at some of those players and realise they have something to offer. There are players like Jason Flynn, the Mannion brothers, Adrian Tuohey who are still in their prime and on their day they’re serious operators. If Henry can coax the best out of them again, Galway will be a dangerous outfit next year. Making Cathal Mannion captain might be the spark that ignites the flame to get these players moving again.
3. Convert the minors
If there’s a rebuilding job and a few hard calls ahead, then transitioning the next generation will be key to how the senior team fares. Galway have had a problem turning outstanding minors into top seniors over the years. Could Henry be the man with the magic wand?
Given his experience, there’d be no one better to influence the next generation. It might be the word in the ear, a hand on the shoulder or the kick up the backside, but Henry will be able to transmit the message firmly that being a good minor doesn’t guarantee you anything at senior level. He’ll be banging a drum that it’s the hard work, the right attitude and commitment that made him the king of the game for so long.
Other counties don’t seem to have a problem transitioning young talent but over the last 20 or 30 years, there’s something amiss in Galway and that has to be corrected to capitalise on their four-in-a-row minor titles.
The influence in this department will depend on how long Henry stays, but I’m sure it’s something he’ll go after from the outset. Even if he doesn’t stick around for too many years, he’ll probably set something up in a template that’ll improve that transition.
4. Get more pace on the pitch
Hurling is changing; it’s plain to see across all the top teams. It’s becoming a possession-based game and it’ll be very interesting to see if Henry goes with that style of play or the more traditional route. You’d know by his punditry that he’s extremely astute in his way of thinking and he will bring an awful lot of that acumen into his thought process.
To build their hurling identity, I think he’s going to be looking for players with speed. Against Waterford, Galway struggled for pace around that middle third.
I think he’ll scour the county for players who can get up and down the field fast because that’s the way the modern game has gone: speed is king.
You have to have it these days, along with hurling skill and a bit of strength.
5. Manage expectations
With every champagne appointment comes a swell of excitement and expectation, but we’ve seen over the years that some Galway fans can become impatient and expect too much, too soon.
There has to be a bit of realism as there’s a bit of a rebuild needed and, while that can eventually lead to success, there’s going to be patience required as Henry tries to bring this project to full fruition. Getting total buy-in from Galway supporters will be key and to do that, he’ll have to lower short-term expectations and keep Galway supporters on side.
What will help him is that he’s not coming from a neighbouring county. Even with social media being what it is, he’ll have the ability to block out a lot of the noise that might otherwise interfere with his plans.
How will it turn out? I think he’s going to do very well, and I hope he does. I think he’s the perfect fit for Galway.
Even from a neutral’s point of view, his appointment has brought a lot of excitement. It’s great for the game and it’s a cracking move by Galway that’ll add more spice to the league and championship. It’s a story that none of us will be able to look away from next year.