Martin Breheny: Betting against Cody and Shefflin coming back would be a mistake
THE signs were ominous from the day Offaly hit Kilkenny for four goals in the Leinster quarter-final in early June.
Kilkenny bagged enough points to win comfortably but it's a rare occurrence to find their goalkeeper retrieving the ball from his net four times. Something didn't look quite right.
And while goalmouth security wasn't an issue throughout the rest of their campaign, other aspects of their game creaked. In particular, their attack never functioned with anything like the efficiency which characterised the boom years; neither did midfield where Michael Fennelly's injury problems robbed them of their main generator.
He played yesterday but never looked like the marauding colossus which won him the Hurler of the Year award two years ago. Lester Ryan didn't take his league form into the championship; Michael Rice hasn't been the same since suffering a horrific hand injury against Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, while Cillian Buckley is taking longer than expected to assert himself at senior level.
The midfield difficulties left the Kilkenny attack with a poor supply and with many of the forwards not playing well anyway, Kilkenny looked quite ordinary at times this summer.
After losing to Dublin, they got a great response from their emotions in the joust with Tipperary and survived a very close call against Waterford but it was all too much for them yesterday, once they lost Henry Shefflin.
Inevitably, the question will arise if this is the end of an era for Kilkenny. With several of their players over the age of 30, there are likely to be changes next year but then that's part of the natural evolution of any squad.
There were those who claimed in 2005 after Kilkenny lost to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final (they had been hammered by Cork in the final a year earlier) that it would be a long time before Liam MacCarthy went Noreside again.
Instead, he spent five of the last six winters there. Predicting era change in Kilkenny is a risky business. Indeed, even as they left Semple Stadium yesterday, they already had a special incentive for next year.
Shefflin's dismissal could be the rallying point as Kilkenny will feel that their spiritual leader was unfairly treated.
Of course, there's the question of whether Shefflin, who will be 35 next January, continues for another season, having fought consistent battles with injury in recent years.
And will Brian Cody continue to patrol the sideline for a 16th season? Neither Shefflin nor Cody will be saying anything about their future for some time but don't bet against both of them being there again next year.
And very definitely don't make the mistake of predicting barren times ahead for Kilkenny.