Wednesday, March 25th, 2015, seems like such an ordinary day on paper, middle of the week, two days to the weekend, whatever you want to call it, but around these parts, where the clash of the caman and sliotar can be heard from Ballyragget, Ballyhale and Castlecomer, it was also the day the greatest hurler, no scratch that, the greatest Irish sportsperson, hung up his hurl.
Henry Shefflin, master of his art, warrior of his people, was not only the heartbeat of his team, he was the heartbeat of all Kilkenny supporters. A lot has been said and written about Henry this past week, journalists, managers, past and current players have lauded so much superlatives onto Henry, I would be surprised if there was any left. However, I think it is important that a member of the Kilkenny hurling public write a tribute to Henry, to try put into words the pride of simply knowing who he was, and what he achieved.
I’m 21 years old, which would have made me 5 in 1999, when Henry was brought into the panel, which was not a good age to pass a comment on his hurling potential! It was only until 2006, until I finally began to notice how special he was. Like DJ had to fill the boots of Eddie Keher, Henry had to do the same for DJ. Who was it that said, Kilkenny would struggle post-DJ? They obviously hadn’t been paying attention to his green-helmeted apprentice! I have attended every training session, every match since then and my admiration for him has grown and grown.
Kilkenny training sessions were always special, but not just ones leading up to the All Ireland, where the city flocks to Nowlan Park to get the latest news on how the team is going. No, the real magical ones were earlier in the summer, in late June, early July. The Park’ would be empty, quiet except for the murmurings of a few locals debating who would start and then the fierce efforts of players striving to snatch up a jersey. Then there was Henry, who would take free’s for at least half an hour after the rest had gone in. The importance of practicing the skills of hurling was something Henry mentioned again and again. It’s important to note that he wasn’t a shining star at underage. He was a sub goalie with Kieran’s, was on and off the minor panel, and if he hadn’t been called to the under 21’s , he would have jetted off to America to start a new adventure, Hard to believe but true!
This is partly why he was so admired, not just by Kilkenny people, but by hurling people. How many players has been this position? Being told they are no good, that they’ll never make it. Henry was one of these players, and the fact he cites constant practice of the basic skills as a major reason behind his success, shows a very clear message. Don’t give up, and you’ll get the rewards. This lesson can be taken in all areas of life, not just sport.
A term that has been used to describe the great players of the past, was that ‘they had it all’. No different for Henry. Height was at his advantage. He often overshadowed his markers, which probably added to his aura. He also had sublime skill, a turn of pace (even in his later years) and sublime vision. An example of this would be the 2012 All Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. Henry, heading towards goal, suddenly spots TJ Reid on his left, he switches hands, performs a monster of a handpass to young Reid who goals. Typical Henry.
His role within the team was crucial. So much so, that when Henry wasn’t on the pitch, there was something missing. It says so much that Brian Cody chose to play him in 2010 with an ACL injury, and why it was a massive blow when he had to come off 12 minutes in. If Cody was the driving force off the field, Henry was the equivalent on it. Who could forget the 2012 draw against Galway when he single-handedly dragged Kilkenny back from certain defeat. Only he could have done it. In one of his interviews during the week, Henry admitted he entered a zone that day, and played like there was no one else on the field. I’m sure a lot of hurlers in the future will be looking to enter that ‘zone’.
I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Christy Ring play, nor Mick Mackey nor John Doyle. However I think Ring was right when he said that the best hurlers have yet to come, because we’ve seen them. We’ve seen Tommy Walsh, the pint-sized mastermind, We’ve seen Jj, the defensive supremo, We’ve seen Eoin Kelly, a figure of brilliance, and we’ve seen Henry, the King of them all.
So thank you Henry, thank you for making it such a pleasure to go to hurling matches over the last 16 years, thank you for giving people special memories, thank you for inspiring young people to NEVER give up on their dreams, Thank you.
A player for the ages, long may he reign.