Sport Hurling

Sunday 18 February 2018

'There's no point going back if you're not right' - Henry Shefflin

Henry Shefflin went home and cut the grass rather than go to see the Bruce Springsteen concert after his red card in the defeat to Cork ended a frustrating season. He still hasn't decided if he will be back for more next year

Henry Shefflin cuts a disappointed figure during extra-time of Kilkenny's qualifier clash with Waterford when he was taken off after the end of normal time
Henry Shefflin cuts a disappointed figure during extra-time of Kilkenny's qualifier clash with Waterford when he was taken off after the end of normal time
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Of all the rotten memories he is sure to carry into winter, one will hang stubbornly above all others. Even now, cushioned by distance, it tugs for his attention like a stone in his shoe. The Waterford game, dying minutes of normal time. A chance to do the right thing and he fluffs it. The memory offends Henry Shefflin because, if he has sought anything from himself throughout the most decorated hurling career of them all, it has been the obligation to radiate calm in a storm.

That matters to Shefflin, touches something sacred inside of him.

But in this moment he forgot himself. It returns to him in slow motion, Kilkenny a point up and chasing security. Matthew Ruth is running through with the ball and hand-passes in his direction. Shefflin is playing nominally at full-forward. The smart thing to do is the Kilkenny thing to do. Keep it simple.

But he becomes the gambler with two pairs who gets blinded by a big pot. Spotting Aidan 'Taggy' Fogarty's run, he decides to double on the ball, redirecting it into his path. If it works, Kilkenny will, most likely, score a goal and close the game.

But Henry's flick is mistimed, the contact poor. Waterford snaffle possession and, not long after, Kevin Moran is throwing over a monster point from somewhere out near Thurles dog-track. Shefflin's man. The walls of Semple Stadium all but convulse with a noise he can tell reflects some imagined symbolism in the score. Moran is on fire, Henry unable to hold him. For half an hour he has been chasing a red-haired wind.

Soon, they are back in the dressing-room preparing for extra-time with Brian Cody enquiring to his well-being. Shefflin lies. "I said I was fine, but probably knew I wasn't," he reflects now. Cody's wisdom takes him to the middle of the dressing-room floor where he announces a single change. "Okay, Walter's going back on for Henry..."

And the greatest hurler most of us have seen finds himself just looking at the floor, praying that this isn't how it finally ends.

THE WAY HE READS IT NOW, he should have recognised the trap he'd set himself. Seven days earlier he'd been the headline act on a night of wild loyalism in Nowlan Park. They beat Tipperary in a game that rolled like a mountainous wave across Kilkenny and its people. The roar when they ran out from under the Ted Carroll Stand was like nothing any of them had known before. He remembers the announcer doing his gentle drum-roll.

"There is one addition..." He remembers a sound that could have cracked the sky. It felt like the outside world was just orbiting around this extraordinary, rural Irish scene.

With six minutes of the game to go, Shefflin came clacking down the steps of the new stand to a welcome that put the hairs standing on the back of his neck. With his help, Kilkenny would ease home and, just those six minutes of championship hurling in his armoury, Henry Shefflin slipped out of Nowlan Park that night, his head a swollen stream of giddiness.

Security

"After the Tipp game, I was on a bit of a high," he remembers now. "The whole place was buzzing. And I probably thought to myself that I don't need to be training, I don't need match practice. That this is going to come easy to me. I think I fell into a false sense of security.

"The whole elation of the Saturday night, everybody slapping your back, telling you: 'Brilliant, you came on and made a difference ... ' I probably thought 'This is easy enough...' Human nature maybe, it's very hard not to get sucked into it.

"But I'm experienced enough. I should have been able to stand back and have a look at it. So they brought me on early in the second half against Waterford and I ended up on Kevin Moran, which probably wasn't a good thing. Things didn't go well for me at all. My head wasn't in the right place, I've no problem saying that. And what I did at the end of normal time was ridiculous.

"I'd have kicked myself if we'd have lost that match because of it. I remember Moran getting the point after totally disgusted me to be honest. My head just was not right, I've no doubt about that. I was sick with myself, felt I'd let the team down basically by doing something really stupid. Just wasn't in the right place. I probably thought this was going to come easily to me. I realised then it wasn't."

There had been no issue with his foot, he feels it important to say that. Henry Shefflin just bombed that evening in Semple Stadium. Even the gods, sometimes, fall over their own feet.

The Cork game? That takes him to a place he is palpably uncomfortable in now. He has no desire to toss cheap darts at Barry Kelly given the awfulness of what has fallen his way since. In any case, he likes and respects Kelly as a referee. As Shefflin offers a personal take on the first sending-off of his career (disregarding the blizzard of cards shown when the players were virtual guinea pigs at the '09 league final), he is keen that his words convey neither preciousness nor anger.

He started that quarter-final because his form suggested he could be ready. In training, he'd been marking Kieran Joyce and surviving. "I wasn't setting the world alight, but I wasn't being shown up in any way either," he recalls.

The first yellow?

"I felt it was for absolutely nothing," he says. "There was a bit of a schemozzle and I was kind of waiting for the ball to break. As it broke, I had planned to just turn and pull on the ball but, at this stage, Lorcan McLoughlin had kind of snuck in beside me. He had a bit of momentum and I was caught flat-footed. He went to rise the ball and I just went to reach in and flick it, but his momentum had taken him away.

"So I touched his hurl. There was probably a sound as I did it, but I didn't make contact with his hand or anything like that. Hurls hit off hurls every minute of a match, so I was very surprised to see a yellow card.

"People have said to me since why didn't I protest, but I said to myself I just wanted to concentrate on the game and, let's face it, he wasn't going to change his mind. But I wasn't there thinking: 'Jesus, I'm in trouble here ... '"

The second one?

"My gut is that's where the lack of match practice showed up for me," he concedes. "Because I was clumsy. I was caught. One of their midfielders was kind of loose, so I ran back about 30 yards just to cover this player. As I did, he kind of drifted back into traffic, so I hung out.

"Then the ball broke and Jamie Coughlan was coming out. I knew what was going to happen and put out my hands. Now I'm normally good at holding off players, but I'll have my hands down low. This is what I put down to the lack of match-practice, my hands were a bit high, there's no doubt about it.

"But, as well as that, he's quite a small fella. Jackie (Tyrrell) was behind him. I could hear Jackie saying: 'Don't foul him, don't foul him ... '

"At that stage, it was too late though. He was already in and slipping. I can remember saying to myself 'Don't fall on top of him because it'll look bad ... '

"But I just couldn't stop. My feet were gone. He fell and I went down on top of him. It was clumsy, but it wasn't reckless or anything like that. As I was getting off the ground, Barry was coming for me with the yellow card. That was it.

Helmet

"So I just unclipped the helmet and walked. I probably was in a little bit of shock. I hadn't seen it coming, but there was no point in making a big deal of it then. He wasn't going to put the card back in his pocket."

Walking off, Shefflin recalls hearing absolutely nothing.

"I just kept my head down," he says. "I just wanted to get into that dug-out and be invisible. You want the ground to swallow you up, you know the usual stuff. That's how I felt. I didn't want to make eye contact with Brian to be honest because I just wanted to get in there.

"Again you're feeling 'Jesus, have I let the team down?'"

Defeat washes all other narratives away. Cody spoke well in the dressing-room after and the players quickly showered before boarding the bus for home, most of them headed for the Bruce Springsteen concert back in Nowlan Park. Shefflin had tickets, but no stomach for 'The Boss'. That evening was spent mowing the lawn with his kids, lamenting a lost year.

The broken bone in his foot suffered last November had seemed a relatively straight-forward matter until a sequence of complications set in. First a corrective pin broke, then he suffered a bout of pneumonia and, finally, a stress fracture. All three predicaments may, to some degree, have been caused by his own impatience to get back playing.

His record of starting every single championship match in Brian Cody's stewardship perished maybe three weeks before the Offaly game with an MRI confirming the stress fracture. He'd been moving well, yet getting an odd sense of pressure under his toes.

When the surgeon announced another "four to six weeks" on the protective boot, he found himself engaging in a familiar round of phone calls.

"What can you do?" he shrugs. "You've to ring Brian. Ring Deirdre (his wife). Ring the physio. Ring the team doctor. The same phone calls I seem to have made so many times, just the same story again. By the end of the day, you're just shattered. Then it kind of sinks in. The club were playing Clara in a league championship match that Friday night.

"I'd never miss a club match, but I just didn't have the heart to go to it. Just couldn't go."

And, from there, Kilkenny's season just gathered a contrary impetus. Having survived a scare against Offaly, they failed in two attempts to beat Dublin. Hurling was in rebellion. "When we lost the replay to Dublin, I knew I was in trouble," he remembers. "I knew the year was beginning to spiral out of control for me."

In the end, he would see just over an hour of championship action, all of it a little frazzled and hurried. None of it touched by the power that carried him to a kind of Camelot last autumn.

ALL-IRELAND FINAL DAY TOOK HIM to Tom Ryall Park in Kilmanagh for a league game against Castlecomer with a noon throw-in.

He doesn't deny it almost felt like an out-of-body experience. Through Shefflin's inter-county career, he has played in 12 out of 15 possible All-Ireland finals. This was the first time in his senior county life that Kilkenny did not even make a semi-final.

He got home in time to watch the second half of the minor game, then sat spell-bound watching the senior. The pace of it all unnerved him slightly. One of the comments he remembers making to Deirdre was about how young the players were. Henry will be 35 in January, Clare's average age was 24, Cork's 26.

He was happy, but not surprised, with last week's news that Cody has chosen to stay on for a 16th year and believes that the addition of James McGarry and Derek Lyng to the backroom will bring positive energy. He has already experienced McGarry's coaching skills with Ballyhale and is confident he will be good for Kilkenny.

But will Shefflin himself be there?

He is undecided. The sense that he never got a free run at championship 2013 certainly gnaws, but he has much to weigh up about where exactly it now leaves him.

"People keep asking me where I'm at now," he says. "I feel fit, but I'm going to have to reflect at the end of the year, see where I stand. I don't know what kind of form I'm in, what kind of shape I'm in because I haven't played enough matches. I need to get a run of matches, see how that goes, see how the injuries go and then make a decision I suppose come the end of the year.

"That's what I'm going to do, see how the body feels."

Had the ferocious pace of the Clare-Cork game in any way unnerved him?

"Definitely so," he concedes. "It's like anyone when you're knocked back and you find yourself down at the bottom again, to get back up to the top seems a very long way away. You see these young lads buzzing around the place. Of course it un-nerves you. And that's why you need to know yourself that you are right.

Speed

"Because there's no point going back if you're not right, there's no doubt about that. That's why I just need to reflect come the end of the year. All those things will come into consideration, the way the youth now are taking over the game. Speed and athleticism have become such fundamental parts of it all.

"I mean, I do look after myself. But when you look at those players on the telly, it seems so fast. You're looking in wondering: 'Jesus would you be able to come into that?'

"That said, you need to remind yourself too that you were able to do it before.

"I've been looking in injured before and had that same feeling. It always looks faster from the outside in. But it's just when you're at the bottom and I'm sure all the lads will be the same, thinking can you get back to that level?

"I suppose that's the challenge. But I need to be sure that I myself am okay to do it. That's what I'll see come the end of the year."

Henry Shefflin wears PUMA King boots which combine tradition and innovation to give comfort and control. PUMA Kings are available in black, red and white from sports stores nationwide including Lifestyle Sports and Elverys Sports. www.puma.com

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