Ballyhale Shamrocks weren’t exactly listing dangerously when Henry Shefflin took control of the bridge.
All-Ireland winners just two years previously, the club’s senior hurlers had endured three seasons without a county title when Shefflin became bainisteoir late in 2017 but it’s not like they were about to sink without trace after a spell that had delivered six Kilkenny titles in nine campaigns. Minor ‘A’ winners in 2016, Shamrocks added the U21 equivalent around about the time Shefflin and his brother Tommy were voted in. The raw materials were there but no-one suspected that a run through to St Patrick’s Day was within their immediate compass.
Yet here they are.
Joey Holden jokes that, as a defender, he was never remotely close enough to Shefflin during their playing days with Ballyhale and Kilkenny to know if he demonstrated budding managerial traits on the field of play but he has been impressed with what he has achieved on the other side of the line.
“Henry will say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. But he’s a good man-manager as well. He talks to the players that need to be talked to and he can talk to the group when it needs to be talked to. You have to distance yourself somewhat (from the players), but I suppose Henry is pushing on in age so he is a distance away from some of the younger lads there anyway. So it’s kind of made it easier for him in that regard.”
Guide Ballyhale to what would be their seventh All-Ireland title and Shefflin’s stock, already stratospheric thanks to his reputation as one of the game’s greatest players, would climb again and thrust him into the conversation about any inter-county roles that may arise.
Some counties would never countenance taking on Kilkenny’s talisman but others would jump at the opportunity. The question is when the chance to manage his own county will present itself for him – or anyone else – given Brian Cody’s success and longevity.
Holden doesn’t go along with the idea that Shefflin would be one of the few men with the cachet to match the peerless Cody whenever the time does come for change in the county dugout but such a succession isn’t one he would rule out.
“You don’t know,” said the 28-year-old who was an All-Star in 2015. “You don’t know how long (Cody will stay on) or what way it’s going to happen. Potentially, yeah. There’s no point hiding away from that. I see a lot of skills and qualities in Henry’s management style that could do well in inter-county. If that opportunity arises, maybe, but at the moment he’s not thinking about that.”
A more immediate imponderable faces them both on Sunday in the form of a St Thomas’ side that they have never met before. Holden is not totally uninformed about the Galway side thanks to one of the sprawling spread of family ties he seems to have.
He is related to the late Mick Holden who won a senior football All-Ireland with Dublin in 1983 and his brother Vinnie, a stalwart for the Dublin hurlers in the same decade.
The Schuttes, Paul and Mark, are other branches on the tree. So is former Kilkenny star Brian Hogan.
Another limb sprouted up St Thomas’ way when an aunt, Anne Kelly (née Holden),
married into the locality.
Holden has vague memories of pucking a ball about with her son Cian when they were young and that same cousin will be part of the opposition panel at Croke Park.
An awkward day for her, perhaps?
“He was number 18 the last day (against Ruairi Óg Cushendall in the semi-final). My aunt Anne would have camogie All-Irelands with Kilkenny, so I’d like to think she’s still Kilkenny at heart!”
There will be no allowances made for blood. Holden is the holder of countless medals between his days serving club and county but he remembers even now the effect that something so distant as one of the club’s U14 Feile-winning teams had on him when he was a kid.
So winning this weekend isn’t just about the current crop. It is about building for the next generation.
“Every time you come up here on Paddy’s Day it’s a unique experience, a different experience, and something that you have to treasure with your club because, when you look at it as a whole, not every club gets to do this. Not every player gets to do this so it really is special.”