Kilkenny hurling stands in a downbeat place.
I was out and about after last Sunday’s senior semi-finals. People were underwhelmed, putting it politely, by the standard on view, after Ballyhale Shamrocks and O’Loughlin Gaels reached the county final.
No one was advancing too many fresh names for a striped intercounty jersey. The idea that Kilkenny will not win a Senior All-Ireland during the 2020s is twisting like ivy around local conversations.
That obvious topic, Henry Shefflin’s decision to take on managing Galway? People shake their head, lost for wryness. From what I hear, there exists no animosity towards the Ballyhale native. Disappointment and frustration, yes, but his name is not being held to a flame.
What people want to know? Whether the County Board possess a succession plan.
Or have they become a Mary Celeste, a ghost ship adrift on past glories? I hope not.
Here is a simple fact. Kilkenny hurling, when Brian Cody was appointed manager in late 1998, had been without a Senior All-Ireland for five seasons. As of late 2021, Kilkenny hurling lies without a Senior All-Ireland for six seasons. The present situation is now objectively worse than the late 20th-century situation.
Like any sensible person, I am grateful to Brian Cody for his immense input into the GAA via St Patrick’s De La Salle BNS, James Stephens, and Kilkenny. He remains a volunteer in the very best sense of the term. He represents the organisation’s best traditions. No one, in all likelihood, will ever exceed his contribution not just to Kilkenny hurling but to hurling, full stop. Cody begins his 24th season as senior manager in 2022.
I intensely dislike public house conversations where the whole place has a problem for every solution. ‘Get rid of this lad, get rid of that lad…’ Ye know the drill, the self-confident ease with which complicated questions are brushed aside. The slash and burn merchants, at the counter, could solve many an energy crisis if only their hot air could be harnessed.
But realities do need to be faced. Henry Shefflin’s move to Galway merely emphasises an existing problem, not a difficulty tucked out of sight around the corner.
One of the best players on view last Sunday, a young James Stephens figure, left Kilkenny’s senior panel in 2021 because of the supposedly poor atmosphere.
Again, once the club action is over, there will be half a dozen to ten exits from the panel of 26 that lost to Cork last August in an All-Ireland semi-final. Are there hurlers of the requisite standard to fill this gap? Doubtful. Nor will this process entirely be natural wastage through age profile. I am told one player, now in his prime, is contemplating retirement out of the same concern about atmosphere.
Does the County Board possess a succession plan? I do know Henry Shefflin is their preferred successor to Brian Cody. If so, how did this swerve to Galway transpire? What did they expect the man to do? Just hang around?
There is a counterfactual version of recent hurling history. Within this scenario, Derek Lyng succeeds Cody for the 2018 season. The tactical decision to send centre back Kieran Joyce chasing Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher around midfield in 2016’s senior final, denuding Kilkenny’s full back line, gets seen for the madness it was.
Seen plain, likewise, is the fiasco against Wexford in 2017’s Leinster Championship.
A quarter fit Pádraig Walsh was picked on edge of square, resulting from 2016’s full back line being filleted against Tipperary, but lined out at centre forward. What did the attackers on Kilkenny’s bench that day draw from this decision? That a quarter fit Walsh counted as the better option up front?
There are decent reasons to feel Kilkenny should have embarked, four seasons ago, on the necessary transition from unparalleled success to more prosaic achievements.
There would still be serious challenges but that difficult moment would be behind the county. I believe Kilkenny would have done as well under a new manager from 2018 onwards as proved the case under their current manager. The team might even have done a touch better. Which or whether, the atmosphere factor would have been addressed. As matters stand, there is no guarantee on when Brian Cody will step back. Henry Shefflin’s logic seems solid. Pared to its core, this logic is a twofold bet. First off, that he is more likely to win Leinster (and maybe All-Ireland) with Galway than with Dublin.
Kilkenny are on the way down and Wexford are probably heading in the same direction. Meanwhile Dublin are hardly significantly on the way up. I hope I am wrong about Kilkenny but this view is now majority opinion in the county.
Winning the Leinster final twice with Galway over the course of a three-year stint is quite possible. This scenario would deliver two automatic All-Ireland semi-final appearances. If Limerick keep winning Munster, any such semi-final would be perfectly winnable. Get into two senior finals and there is a decent chance to pinch one.
Second of all, Shefflin was never going to succeed Davy Fitzgerald in Wexford. No outsider will ever manage Cork or Tipperary. There is no vacancy for the foreseeable future in Clare, Limerick or Waterford. Besides, Munster would be harder to win than Leinster. So the choice, in top tier, was Dublin or Galway.
Courage remains the only sure source of momentum. Henry Shefflin has acted in bold and courageous fashion. There are no guarantees but he will have weighed up possibilities to the last milligram. His Galway cupboard might stay bare. Fair enough. But he discerns a value bet.
The fact that he is willing to make this wager says far more about the current state of play in Kilkenny than it does about Galway’s immediate future.