Saturday 25 November 2017

'This medal is the sweetest', says Henry Shefflin

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

On the Monday before Kilkenny's opening match of the 2012 championship, Henry Shefflin couldn't puck a ball off a wall down at home in Ballyhale, such was the discomfort he felt in the shoulder that had required surgery some seven-and-a-half months earlier.

Five days before a game with Dublin that had been firmly embedded in their minds from the moment the flag dropped to begin the 2012 hurling season, he was struggling with the most basic movement required to hurl.

It unnerved him.

In the weeks between that victory over Dublin and the Leinster final defeat to Galway, those doubts about himself never lifted.

Speaking outside the players' lounge in the basement of Croke Park where he has just broken away from a conversation with Joe Canning at the bar, Shefflin talks of those dark days just a few short months ago that are hard now to reconcile with the stand-alone achievement of winning an unprecedented ninth All-Ireland medal as a starting player.

Christy Ring and John Doyle both got to eight in their time, Noel Skehan made nine (three as replacement goalkeeper) but for each of his nine All-Ireland triumphs Shefflin has started and made such meaningful contributions.

Reticent

With Noel Hickey, who is also on nine (he was a substitute in 2009 and 2012), such a historic landmark is something that even the normally reticent hero is willing to acclaim. Because there were times when he wondered if would see the light shine through his own personal fog.

"That Monday before we played Dublin in the first round of the Leinster championship, I went down to puck off a wall and I couldn't puck the ball because my shoulder was at me. To come from that stage to here," he sighs.

"Getting scans between the Dublin and Galway match, my mind wasn't totally in it. I was more concerned about my shoulder. At that stage, I spoke to a few people and I said I'd put all those things in the past, look forward and start training. That's what I've done. It's been perfect since then."

The Monday after the Leinster final defeat provided another crisis moment as the impact of what had happened was absorbed. The journey from there to here has made it "the sweetest" of the set for the nine-time champion. "If you'd spoken to me the Monday after the Leinster final, I'd have had serious question marks about myself, let alone Kilkenny. So to reach this now after the summer, I'd have to say this is definitely the sweetest. As well, to win the ninth medal, myself and Noel today, is a special feeling.

"Last year was a very sweet victory because of the injury more than anything else. There were major concerns would I ever get back there again. I just think this one captures my whole career more than anything else. I would definitely have to say that this one is sweet."

A long time ago, he admits, talk of the record-breaking ninth medal was something to be embraced, not avoided.

"People have been looking to talk to me about it and they've said they'd love to see me win it. I'll be honest with you, I decided that I was going to say 'yeah' that I would love to win it. There was no point hiding from it and it was a great motivation for me. Why would you hide from something that's so special like that?"

SUCCESS

For Shefflin, the key to this success was the return to more traditional values for this team and a less obsessive approach to their opponents.

"I think Galway showed us the last two days what we needed to do. To be fair, Brian and the management team deserve great kudos. They made some serious changes. Aidan Fogarty and Colin Fennelly were very unlucky to lose out.

"I think as well the man-marking we did the last day worked to a certain extent, but they decided to go away from that.

"Brian wanted us to go back to play like Kilkenny have always played under his stewardship. That was key today."

The suggestion to Cody that Shefflin's early impact had 'set the tone' for the rest to follow once again was greeted with a wry smile.

"He set the tone from early on around 1999, I think, to be honest about it, from the point of view of playing senior with Kilkenny. He hasn't just played for Kilkenny, he has done everything for Kilkenny, he's led for Kilkenny, he's scrapped for Kilkenny and that's the difference in Henry Shefflin and players who just got out to get on the scoreboard and be the top scorer or whatever it was," he figured.

"Regardless, his work rate is immense. Everybody raved about him the last day and rightly so, he just came out and led from the front when we were under severe pressure.

"Today again, there he was again, working, working, working. His achievement is unique because nobody has ever done it before and that tells its own story. Also, you have to mention Noel.

"What Noel Hickey means to our dressing-room you couldn't quantify, to Kilkenny, to hurlers and everyone involved in our panel. You couldn't even begin to describe it, a leader."

As to the future, Cody admits he'd be "amazed" if Shefflin does not present himself for duty again in 2013 while the player himself is looking forward to a winter without surgery again.

"Once I do that, at my stage of the career you always review and evaluate and stuff like that. I'd love to be back again and hopefully my body will allow me to do that," says Shefflin.

For Cody, the key to victory was the refusal to panic when Galway got their goals.

"You could say, 'my God we're in trouble', and we probably did that a small bit the last day when Joe Canning got the goal early in the first half. We allowed it to unsettle us a bit. You can't allow something to unsettle you two days in a row. There was no unsettlement whatsoever. We just replied straight away, 'get it over the bar, get back into it, carry on, keep hurling'.

"They answered all the questions that were asked of them today in an absolutely massive way. The performance of the team was absolutely outstanding."

Irish Independent

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