Return of the King
Twelve months ago Henry Shefflin’s cruciate cut his All-Ireland final painfully short. Tomorrow at Croke Park he aims to prove he’s better than ever
During Brian Hogan's presentation speech after the Leinster final, Henry Shefflin was casually shooting the breeze with sub-goalkeeper PJ Ryan. Decked out in a Dublin jersey he had just swapped, Shefflin's demeanour was totally relaxed and he was constantly smiling as he chatted to Ryan.
Shefflin has heard a hundred Kilkenny acceptance speeches, but he was clearly inhaling the deep sense of satisfaction from his performance more than basking in the achievement of having won his 12th Leinster senior medal.
Shefflin had been tentative in Kilkenny's Leinster semi-final against Wexford, which was his first competitive game back since last year's All-Ireland final. He admitted as much afterwards when he said he was still unsure about going at 100pc, especially when his knee was sore the following morning. But he also knew that he was moving freely and that more game time would ease his mind as much as anything else.
Despite his immense mental strength, it was inevitable that doubts would beset him after he'd spent the winter and spring recovering from his second cruciate ligament injury. After the first injury in 2007, it took Shefflin until the latter stages of the 2008 championship for him to really feel comfortable within himself and it was only in the 2009 championship that he felt he was operating at his peak again after the setback.
There was a photograph taken during the Wexford game, where Shefflin was soloing the ball and holding off Lar Prendergast. The muscle tone in his quadriceps was similar to that of an elite cyclist, which highlighted just how much work Shefflin had done during his recuperation.
Yet no two cruciate injuries are the same and it was clear to those who spoke to him in the lead up to the Leinster final that he was still slightly on edge about his knee, especially when returning to the hard surface of Croke Park. The same people who spoke to him afterwards, though, said that Shefflin was "buzzing".
His performance on the day emphatically cleared out any doubts he might have had deep in the recesses of his mind. Michael Fennelly and Eoin Larkin were the only Kilkenny players to have made more plays than him, but Shefflin's overall contribution was massive.
He scored 1-9, 1-2 from play, yet also played almost as an auxiliary wing-back for large stages of the game, where his lust for winning the dirty ball was never more evident.
That overwhelming desire to be on the ball and to be in the contact areas was a clear indication that Shefflin's knee wasn't bending under the load. It was no surprise to see him so content after the game. He was back.
If you study Shefflin's performances closely over the last two games, he has been playing better than ever. If you examine the statistics from the All-Ireland semi-final, Shefflin was clearly the best player after John Mullane. He made more plays (28) than anyone else. Michael 'Brick' Walsh made just one less than Shefflin, but there was no comparison between Walsh's influence on the game and Shefflin's. In overall performance terms, he was Kilkenny's best player by a distance.
Of course, there is still a concern surrounding his knee and his training is being managed more closely now. When he didn't train the Wednesday evening before the All-Ireland semi-final, rumour spread like wildfire. When he appeared to jar his knee just before half-time, two Kilkenny medics sprinted onto the field, even though Shefflin didn't appear to be in distress. Their anxiety seemed to be pre-programmed.
If you were to forensically study Shefflin that day, there were traces of how the injuries have affected him. In the 21st minute, he flicked on a long David Herity delivery, knocking the ball to the ground before picking it in full flight which put him in the clear down the centre of the Waterford defence.
Shefflin, though, had only taken six steps when two Waterford players had gobbled him up and he was forced to turn back. He held onto possession before looking up and passing the ball backwards to Michael Fennelly in space, who drove the ball over the bar.
There was something hugely significant in that short sequence of play. Shefflin may have lost a yard of pace and may no longer have the same power in his legs that he once did. Though Shefflin never had killer pace and was never reliant on speed because he could play it any way it came, the manner in which he set up Fennelly highlighted how much he compensates for any deficit in pace through his intelligence and experience.
At 32 and after two serious knee injuries, it would be wholly idealistic to expect Shefflin to be the same player he was. But he is such a freak that he is still good enough to tower above everybody else.
The reality is that Kilkenny have depended on him as much as ever this season. Maybe more. He remains the conductor of the orchestra, their absolute leader. It's also reasonable to deduce that Kilkenny will be much less of a force when he does depart because of the massive deficit he will leave behind.
More than any other player, he expresses the ideal that Brian Cody pursues. Shefflin's extraordinary work rate and selflessness exemplifies Cody's preference for the collective over the individual, but Shefflin has still been the only player that has been untouchable in Cody's eyes. He is the only player to have started every championship match -- 55 -- under Cody's reign and his value to the team is beyond calculation.
Despite his age and his catalogue of serious injuries, as Kilkenny evolved into the greatest team of all time, Shefflin's importance to their success grew. As they got better they depended on him more, not less. In the current context, nothing has changed in that regard. For Kilkenny to win tomorrow, they will need Shefflin operating close to his maximum potential. Again.
Kilkenny have always relied on him in big games. When he injured his cruciate just before half-time in the 2007 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny were sloppy in the second half in his absence, but the outcome was already decided by then. When he was sent off in the 2009 league final against Tipperary, others rose to the challenge and Kilkenny came from behind to force a narrow victory in extra-time.
Another compelling trend throughout his career is his capacity to make an explosive start in big matches. He didn't exactly explode in the opening quarter of last year's final, but before he went off injured, Shefflin had created Kilkenny's first goal chance and had made more plays (seven) than anyone else while on the field.
Picking up a second cruciate injury (on a different knee) in three seasons triggered speculation afterwards that his inter-county days could be over. In the days after that final, Shefflin noticed that just kicking out his leg in a gentle manner caused him unmerciful pain. The day of the operation a few weeks later couldn't come quickly enough. When he woke up afterwards, Tadhg O'Sullivan, the surgeon, was standing over him with big chunk of dislodged cartilage in a sample jar. That's what was causing the pain.
The rehab was slow and lonely. He started off with the most basic exercise. When the scar had healed, he was back in the pool. Just walking up and down. Then walking up and down the pool with ankle weights on to increase the resistance. Next stage was a stationary bike and some spinning. He began with minimum resistance before following the template of recovery which was set down for him.
He got an automatic car to take the strain off his knee for the hours spent on the road with his job, but he set no date for a return. He just pushed on, day by day, week by week. The recovery rate from a cruciate injury for a professional soccer player in England is six months, but the surgeons here have started holding back GAA players as it isn't possible for them to put in the same amount of rehab. Shefflin was also reminded of the risks of rushing back when a young Ballyhale Shamrocks clubmate broke down over the spring after coming back from the same injury.
Shefflin had initially pencilled in his comeback for May 26, a game with Ballyhale against Fenians Johnstown. Yet by the first week in May, he felt the time was right and he signalled his intention to management early that week to tog out against Dunnamaggin in the senior league. Management said that as soon he expressed his desire to make himself available, they knew he wouldn't sit on the bench.
That day in Hugginstown, Shefflin was introduced just after half-time. He was given a loud ovation from both sets of supporters, but there was an audible intake of breath when he went into contact for the first time. Shefflin scored a point from play before rifling over a long-range free.
Three weeks later, he was back in a Kilkenny jersey for the first time since last September when he played the full 70 minutes of a challenge game against Waterford in Tallow. Wearing the No 14 jersey, Shefflin largely confined himself to that full-forward area, but he had an excellent match, ending with a tally of eight points, including three class scores from play.
In Ballyhale and within the Kilkenny panel, there was never any doubt that he would be back. Although he has three children under the age of four now, any Kilkenny player who has played with him would say that there has never been a more focussed or hard-working player in the county during that time.
Neither has there been someone as disciplined. Early in the last decade, Shefflin made a lifestyle decision which separates him from everyone else. Work colleagues remember him at a training course in Dublin a few years ago draining two water-coolers during the day in an attempt to stay fully hydrated. He is equally as strict with his diet.
Looking at him now, Shefflin has never been leaner. More say he has never been fitter.
He is still so passionate about hurling that, if he can stay injury free, he's likely to be still playing inter-county hurling for another three to four years. If he is, by that stage, he'll probably end his days in the full-forward line. With his eye for a killer score and his ability to ghost into scoring positions, he would take more watching than ever in that role.
He did everything possible to be right for last year's final, but after the trauma and distraction of that experience, he admitted last week that he was really enjoying the build up to tomorrow's final. A win now would grant him an eighth All-Ireland medal on
the field of play and a place in the pantheon alongside Christy Ring and John Doyle.
Despite all he has achieved, records are still falling all around him. In the Leinster final, he maintained his record of being the only player to score a goal in 13 consecutive championship seasons.
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, he became the first hurler to amass more than 300 championship points from placed balls. He has now scored 56 more points from placed balls than the next man, Eddie Keher. In October, he will surely become the first player in history to win 10 All-Star awards.
The glory of Shefflin and his brilliance has always seemed human and rooted in hard work. The disappointment of last season and the lonely path back confirms that impression, but it has also been a reaffirmation of his majesty within the game.
Shefflin's legend will surely expand yet again after tomorrow, but the real beauty is that he has justified it. And there have been no magic tricks. Just the eternity of hours submitted to his game out of love and passion and humility.