Sunday 19 November 2017

Shamrock in full bloom

Henry Shefflin has seen and won it all, but he tells Damian Lawlor why hurling still excites him

THE morning rush-hour traffic that clogs the Marble City's streets reminds you of the hectic nature of Kilkenny's hurling season -- building slowly through the early months until what has become an almost inevitable September crescendo.

Henry Shefflin emerges from both in relaxed mood, driving in the opposite direction to the chaos while enjoying his club commitments that have brought Ballyhale to Croke Park on Wednesday for an All-Ireland club final meeting with Portumna.

"It's gas," he smiles. "You serve most of your life with Kilkenny but when it comes to club finals you'd just be in a bubble.

"We played Offaly in the league opener three weeks back but it was nearly evening before I got a report on the game. You totally tune out when Ballyhale are motoring. When that's all over, you go back into Nowlan Park and it's the other way around for a while."

As he sits down to tea in the lobby of the Lyrath Estate Hotel, you put it to him that the year-round nature of the hurling calendar has governed his life thus far. "That was definitely the case a few years ago but not anymore," he says. "Life moves on. A while back you would be hurling, hurling, hurling and maybe enjoying the trimmings and side shows that go with playing for Kilkenny. I was younger then and maybe easily distracted.

"But it rolls on. Deirdre and I built a house, got married and had two kids. Suddenly my perspective is a lot different. Now I go out, hurl and go home to the family. You can still enjoy it, but your priorities are different than when you were younger."

Sadbh is almost two, while Henry junior arrived on the scene last October. He was only days old when his father helped Ballyhale pull another match out of the fire, their Leinster semi-final defeat of Wexford champions Oulart-The Ballagh.

At one stage, Oulart led by 1-10 to 0-4, but through Shefflin, Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid, Ballyhale clawed their way back, brought the game to extra-time and pulled off an unlikely win. Oulart's manager Liam Dunne spoke in the Ballyhale dressing room afterwards and dryly remarked that it had been hard enough for Wexford hurling coping with one Henry Shefflin all their lives without having another to deal with now.

Shefflin openly admits that Henry's birth provided him with motivation that afternoon. "I was on a high and wanted to keep it going," he says. "The whole family thing is after giving me a balance in life. For years, I was thinking about hurling way too much and it probably consumed my life. I would stew about a bad game for ages. People were telling me I was looking gaunt. Now I look at things differently.

"I'm able to go home to Sadbh and Henry and Deirdre and really it's the three of them who matter. If I'm in a bad mood after a game, it's gone when I walk in the door because the two little ones couldn't care less if I had won an All-Ireland final scoring 10 points. They only want to play. It's something I needed, I think. A few years ago I didn't have that balance in my life, but I have it now."

The rest of his Kilkenny team-mates look to be following suit. Martin Comerford got married two weeks ago, Eddie Brennan married shortly after Christmas while Mick Kavanagh and his wife Hazel, are also newly-weds. Shefflin chuckles when he goes through the list.

"The Clare lads who won the 1995 All-Ireland were all single and it was the same for us until lately. But now the boys are dropping like flies. A lot of good men have gone lately," he jokes.

This is his first interview since last year's dramatic All-Ireland final victory over old rivals Tipperary, a win that crowned a remarkable four-in-a-row. Shefflin knows that for a game that had so much riding on it, it was a great spectacle. "A lot of finals are consumed by tension and maybe the games aren't open but that was not one of them."

Plenty of doubt was cast on the controversial penalty Diarmuid Kirwan awarded the Cats late on, but Shefflin doesn't care for a rehash of that. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the decision, it fell to Shefflin to make the most if it.

"We needed a goal, simple as that," he states. "I felt a goal would change it. We were behind and I said I'd go for it; there was never any other option. Had it been saved, I'd have been criticised but it went in. A minute later, Gorta [Martin Comerford] bagged another one and it opened up for us. Still, you have no idea how tight that final was."

He took a few days out to enjoy the achievement, but there wasn't long for rejoicing. Little Henry was on his way, the club had county title aspirations and Shefflin's work with Bank of Ireland Finance was a priority. Through his job, he is working with businesses and he sees them dealing with the day-to-day pressures of keeping afloat. It's not easy seeing hard-working business people and traders under such pressure.

"Well, there's some bit of confidence creeping back in now, thanks be to God. You can see the first small signs of a recovery but it's been a terrible period and I've seen the serious pressures that people are under. It's not nice. You come out of meeting people like that, sit in the car and thank your lucky stars that you've a job and a healthy family. The last few years have been no different for anyone, but maybe things will start moving again."

For now, thoughts are turning to St Patrick's Day in Croke Park. "People have this impression of Ballyhale being club giants but we haven't been in the All-Ireland on Paddy's Day for four years so this is huge," he insists. "We've only won one recent club title and I believe we're up against the greatest club team of all time. That's no disrespect to the great Ballyhale team of the past. To do what Portumna have done in the last four years (three All-Ireland titles) is magnificent in this day and age. They've beaten everyone and they're up there with Birr as the best ever. It will be some battle.

"There are some people who say we are lucky to be there. Our goalkeeper James (Connolly) had to produce the goods the last day. He saved our bacon against Newtownshandrum. Against Oulart, I really thought it was curtains. They have 11 inter-county players and Liam Dunne as manager. We really got a huge fright. Our season might have ended there and then and we wouldn't be sitting here now talking about an All-Ireland final."

It won't take the Ballyhale folk long to become accustomed to their surrounds on Wednesday. They've been here many times before, winning All-Ireland titles in 1981, '84, '90 and 2007, incredible stuff for a club that was only founded in 1971. Once the new outfit -- combining the three hamlets of the parish: Ballyhale, Knocktopher and Knockmoylan -- was formed, they enjoyed instant success and began climbing the ladder.

Páirc Uí Seamroig was opened in 1992 and before its official opening a young Henry Shefflin was one of those picking stones from the ground before the elder lemons rolled it out and made it hurling-friendly. Back then, the Fennelly brothers were the backbone of the club and Shefflin grew up admiring their achievements. The game consumed him but his initial development was slow, that's been well documented, and his underage career was only average.

"I'll put it like this," he says. "We went off to play James Stephens in a challenge match in 1998 and we only had 16 men. I was the 16th man. I found it hard to get my game and that was the truth of it. I was the one on the bench when we struggled to get a team together."

All things considered, the subsequent transition from 16th man to hurling's greatest player has been swift. When pressed on his dramatic surge to pre-eminence, he shrugs his shoulders. It's then put to him that there have been plenty of late developers in club hurling over the years but few of them go any further than making the local 15, never mind winning nine All-Stars and seven All-Irelands.

"I know it doesn't happen like that too often," he admits, "but going to college in WIT was great for me, I suppose. We won two Fitzgibbon Cups there and I started making the club team soon after. Then I played intermediate with Kilkenny and did grand there too. At club level I was doing okay from play so they let me take the frees too. After we won a second Fitzgibbon, Brian Cody called me into the Kilkenny squad. That was early 1999, in the days when lads came back a few pounds heavier after a good winter. But I was still fit and sharp from the college. I held my own in that National League campaign and it's gone from there."

As he finishes his tea, he wonders how Portumna are faring. There's always another match to think of, but will it be like that all his life?

"It's not something I have ever thought of," he replies, a little thrown. "If I still have a few years left playing for Kilkenny, and hopefully I do, that's all I want. One injury can take it all away from you. The coaching side of things is certainly not an issue I've given a moment's thought to. It's all about playing. I'm only 30 and we've had some good times, but there's a lot to play for still."

Still remarkably grounded, every team Shefflin has played on has acquired the ability to win. And you just can't shake the feeling that the best is yet to come.

Sunday Independent

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