When legends collide...
By Michael Moynihan
We’re in Nowlan Park so we’ll start with the visitor. When I say ‘Kilkenny’ what comes to mind, Seán Óg?
Seán Óg O hAilpín: “Traditionalists, winners, an unbelievable hurling county. It all feeds in together, of course — they’re winners and they’re hurlers together, so if you asked someone in Sligo or wherever about Kilkenny, those are the first things they’ll say: hurling and winners.”
Henry, when I say ‘Cork’ what are the associations?
Henry Shefflin: “A traditional hurling county which every year would be very competitive, a county for which Kilkenny would have a lot of respect. Any time you’d play Cork you’d always be very wary, and I’d say they’d be the same against us. You know any day you go out to face the red jersey you’re in for a tough battle.”
Henry, you’re battling back to full fitness after a lengthy injury lay-off. Have there been times you didn’t think you’d play for Kilkenny again?
Shefflin: “The shoulder is coming on grand, it’s in good enough shape but it’s slow progress. In the dark days you’d maybe doubt whether you’ll make it back, particularly before the surgery or just afterwards. You’d be incapacitated then, but once you get back doing your rehab, you can focus on that and get your mind right at the same time. You can be positive, even though you’d have the odd bad day when you’re wondering if you’ll be okay. Unfortunately I’m used to lengthy rehab after my cruciate injuries. The doctor told me six months was what it would take to get my shoulder right, and I thought I might be back sooner, but that’s the time frame it’s working out at. I’ll have more to do before I’m up to speed.”
Seán Óg, you were dropped from the Cork panel for last year — was that a time you thought you wouldn’t play inter-county again?
Seán Óg: “Definitely, I didn’t really see a way back. Jimmy (Barry-Murphy)’s second coming as manager — he’s created an unbelievable atmosphere, a buzz among the Cork hurling public, no matter what side people were on in the strikes a couple of years ago. He’s made a huge difference because everybody who’s interested in hurling in Cork has rowed in behind him. Only a few people can do that, and he’s one of them.”
Talking of managers, is Brian Cody someone you’d have liked to play for?
Seán Óg: “Definitely. The only person you could compare him to in terms of management would be Alex Ferguson, or maybe Seán Boylan up in Meath. They say ‘tough times don’t last but tough people do’, and there’s an element of toughness there with him. Kilkenny would be like Cork in that if you don’t produce the silverware, you’re gone. So he’d be under that kind of pressure as a manager. As a player you’d love to play under a manager like that — just look at the lads he has put through his hands, the DJ Careys, John Power, Henry himself. The one thing I’d like to see is how he reinvigorates lads and keeps them going. How does he keep the appetite sharp? I can remember when we were winning All-Irelands, after a couple of years you could see the appetite wane a small bit with some lads. That’s not the case with Kilkenny.”
Shefflin: “It’s probably strange just to have the one manager for your entire career at inter-county level, though I’ve had different managers at club level. Brian’s always been there, we’ve always wanted him there, so it’s not as if we’d be thinking ‘what if someone else were there?’. We’re very happy each year that he decides to stay on, and obviously it would be a massive change if he went. The fascination with him? Of course that’s understandable — he’s successful, and people are always interested in how successful people operate, no matter whether that’s in sport or business or any walk of life. Brian’s very much his own person — he doesn’t do anything over-scientific or anything like that, he’s just a great manager.”
You’re both over 30 and you must be thinking of life after hurling. Any interest in management?
Seán Óg: “Not immediately after retiring as a player, anyway — it might be no harm to give it a rest for a year or two. Getting into underage coaching at my club would be what I’d be interested in. Senior inter-county management down the line wouldn’t rock my boat to be honest — coaching would interest me, working one-on-one with fellas, not management and all that goes with that. I wouldn’t fancy having to break the news to lads that they’re gone off the panel after training for months.”
Shefflin: “It’s a very hard question. I’d like to go back to the club after I finish at inter-county, because when you’re playing with Kilkenny you don’t have the same amount of time to devote to the club, so that’d be my immediate focus after ending with Kilkenny.”
Finally, while everyone in the country knows Seán Óg wasn’t born in the county he represents, it’s not as widely known that Henry Shefflin wasn’t actually born in Kilkenny...
Seán Óg: “You’d think from time to time about what would have happened if we hadn’t come to live in Cork when we came back from Australia, as I suppose the majority of people who move to Ireland probably stay in the capital city, in terms of work and so on. Would I have had the same success if we’d done that? No. What possessed my parents to pick Cork as a destination when they came to Ireland, I don’t know, but I’ve always been grateful that they did.”
Shefflin: “I was born in Waterford. Have I ever thought about what would have happened if I’d stayed there and played for Waterford? No, I’m from south Kilkenny.”
And you’d have been dragged back over the bridge anyway?
Shefflin: Maybe! Home