‘Full-house’ signs up as hurling’s greatest player prepares to take his first steps as Galway manager against a familiar foe in Ballinasloe
Strange music in Galway heads for January then, the lure of an afternoon leaning against the weather already commanding ‘full house’ signs at the Ballinasloe turnstiles.
It would be easy to collate the attractions of home for Henry Shefflin on a Walsh Cup Sunday, but few men need lighter counsel on the educational value of monitoring inter-county aspirants hurl in a raw landscape. A Covid-limited 3,000 will pour into Duggan Park tomorrow for his debut as Galway hurling manager, Michael Fennelly’s Offaly providing the opposition.
As a signpost game, it promises almost nothing.
Even in the absence of their St Thomas’ contingent, Galway have had an estimated 50 or so in early training under the new management, Shefflin trawling deep through a county long recognised for its impressive art collection of decorated minors.
No managerial appointment has ever quite electrified the old game like last October’s confirmation that the late rabbit pulled from a hat by Hurling Committee chairman Paul Bellew was – in fact – hurling’s only 11-time All-Star.
And the instant alchemy of Shefflin’s arrival in the west has been to blow apart an ominous cloud hanging over the Galway hurling community after the insipid failures of 2021 and the subsequent loss of Joe Canning to retirement.
The real work starts here, however, with Offaly again on the horizon as their opening National Hurling league opponents come February 6 and, for those drawn to a Broadway narrative, that third round Leinster Championship game in Salthill against Kilkenny looming for the weekend of April 30/ May 1.
Limerick, naturally, represent the modern yardstick and there’s little doubt that Shefflin would not have committed to this journey if he didn’t believe Galway capable of meeting it.
But if there’s one thing that he can be guaranteed to do as Galway manager it is to demythologise what it is that Limerick do, spiking any idea that they, somehow, represent a unique intellectual challenge. Hurling will never be algebra in Shefflin’s world and it’s clear that he has, at best, a jaundiced view of pundits who choose to tailor it as such.
Such a view shouldn’t be confused mind with any kind of old-world obstinacy.
TJ Reid lauded the modernity Shefflin instantly brought to Ballyhale’s set-up when first appointed Shamrocks’ manager in late 2017 but, critically, that modernity never got in the way of certain fundamentals en route to back-to-back All-Ireland club crowns.
Brian Cody’s bottom-line expectation of match-day resilience in his players is one that Shefflin, clearly, shares.
In their world, a system isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless underpinned by basics like courage, work-rate and a broad culture of selflessness.
Through Shefflin’s punditry, it’s been easy to discern a wariness of zealous, over-analytical coaching, of teams almost out-thinking themselves rather than hurling with identifiable trust. Maybe Limerick’s structural flexibility in the white heat of battle has been partly responsible for a general fraying of opponents’ nerve.
The wheeling out of Paul Kinnerk’s famous tactics-board during water-breaks has been all but depicted in some quarters as hurling’s equivalent of Karl Marx bent over a weighty manuscript.
But great hurling battles seldom bend easily to coaching tweaks once the wind of momentum has been established. For Shefflin, no question, Limerick will be the measuring stone. But not at the expense of over-amplifying their status.
Last May in Salthill, when Galway inflicted Limerick’s first competitive defeat since the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny (a gap of 659 days to be precise), there was a punkishness to how they went about it. No sweeper, no tactical mumbo-jumbo in other words. Just one big team going toe-to-toe with another.
Galway would end up sharing the league title with Kilkenny but, somehow, whatever spiky energy carried them through that competition had dissipated by the time they got to championship. Suffice to say that their summer fell into a sleep-walk.
One, essentially, costing Shane O’Neill his job.
In this, they fell prey to a caricature of old almost, to the idea that Galway were flaky, “dangerous on any given day” as Jackie Tyrrell puts it in The Warrior’s Code, but fundamentally unreliable too.
“When we came up against certain counties, you’d nearly mark the same fella the whole time,” observed Shefflin’s long-time team-mate in his 2017 autobiography. “With Galway, it was always someone new, someone different. ‘Here is the latest hotshot coming now,’ I’d say to myself. ‘I’ll send him off with his tail between his legs, like the rest of them.’”
There’s little doubt that the All-Ireland semi-final losses to Galway in ’01 and ’05 had a lasting, informative impact in that Kilkenny dressing-room. So too the ’12 Leinster final whipping, from which Cody’s men rebounded to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
For all his peerless days, Shefflin selects his performance in the drawn ’12 All-Ireland final against Galway as the most satisfying, a game in which he was restricted to 0-1 from play. To understand why, it is essential to give that performance context.
Much of Shefflin’s season was hopelessly compromised by stubborn injury, first a chronic shoulder problem requiring surgery that denied him any opportunity to hurl in the league; then a hamstring bleed that would have ruled him out of the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick had he not kept it quiet from what he assumed to be a growingly impatient Cody.
Shefflin’s summer was proving inconsequential until that day when he top-scored with 2-6 (2-2 from play). Maybe six weeks later, his move to the ‘40’ just 20 minutes into the All-Ireland final was broadly deemed the move that dragged Kilkenny back into a game they looked at risk of being submerged in.
By season’s end, Shefflin – at 33 – had been declared Hurler of the Year.
The qualities that carried him to that award were those that Cody, especially, has always coveted in a player. Namely resilience, humility, a refusal to surrender. Or as the Kilkenny manager himself put it on Shefflin’s retirement, “emptying the tank every time”.
It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination now to suggest that Shefflin’s appeal to Galway hurling – obvious aura apart – is the hope that he can impart that kind of competitive candour to a dressing-room seemingly devoid of it since Micheál Donoghue’s departure.
If Shefflin’s Galway comes, in time, to hurl with a Kilkenny bluntness, fair to suggest he’ll encounter few complaints.
But there is a bottom line in what Galway want of their new manager too. On some levels, Shefflin’s achievement in winning back-to-back club All-Irelands on his first foray into management hasn’t – maybe – received due respect because of Ballyhale’s gilded history in the game.
And this, he knows, now takes him to a different place.
Donoghue alone has managed winning All-Ireland teams at both club (Clarinbridge 2011) and county (Galway 2017) level and, no question, that will be Shefflin’s ambition as his three-year term commences.
Will he see that term out?
The assumption that he is Cody’s successor in waiting is obviously compelling and Kilkenny, clearly, is a restless county just now.
A week after the Galway announcement, the front page of the Kilkenny People carried an old picture of Shefflin signing autographs while wearing a Galway jersey back to front under the heading ‘We’ll Meet Again – County divided as Henry goes West.’
Yet how, logically, could the Kilkenny board reject Cody’s decision to continue as manager for a 24th season, given their status as back-to-back Leinster champions and the fact that only an extra-time defeat to Cork denied them a place in last year’s All-Ireland final?
Shefflin appreciates that reality better than anyone and will bring a single-mindedness to the months ahead, instantly challenging any thread of equivocation in how his Galway team hurls.
“Henry’s not going to complicate things!” observed ‘Taggy’ Fogarty at the time of his appointment.
Nor will he.
But only a fool would mistake simplicity for compromise in Henry Shefflin’s world.