The first time I ran into Henry Shefflin was in 1999. Clare played Kilkenny in a challenge in Johnstown and this young fella arrived onto my patch as a second-half sub.
I spent the previous 45 minutes chasing Brian McEvoy around with no great success so when I saw this big, raw lad, with an innocent face and red hair creeping out the side of his helmet, I said to myself, ‘Grand, I’ll put the feet up here now for 25 minutes’.
Then the first ball that dropped between us, he stuck up his paw and caught it. ‘Who’s that cheeky young fella?’ I asked in the dressingroom afterwards. ‘That’s Henry Shefflin,” said Jamesie O’Connor. ‘He’s the new guy they’re all talking about.’ Little did I know? I never marked Shefflin again but he continued to torture me during the nine years I subsequently spent as Clare and Dublin manager.
One of the standout memories I have facing Kilkenny was repeatedly roaring into our lads to pick up Shefflin. ‘Jeeeeez, look at him, will somebody get over on him quick,’ I’d be screaming with my hands over my head.
I’d be pushing Ciaran ‘Hedgo’ Hetherton onto the pitch to tell someone to try and put a lassoo on Shefflin. Before ‘Hedgo’ was within earshot of the intended player, Shefflin invariably had the ball over the bar.
That ability to drift, that unique understanding of space, was one of his greatest gifts. He might be playing left half forward but he’d drift over to the far touchline, or far corner, without anyone spotting him. He was so flexibleit was impossible to put a man-marker on him. The beauty of that Kilkenny forward line was they were more flexible than anyone else, but trying to pin down Shefflin was like trying to hold mercury between your fingers. He would always slip through.
When I was with Clare, we were a little defensively inflexible because Brian Lohan and Seán McMahon were our two defensive anchors – Clare wouldn’t mind having the two of them now - and we didn’t want either of them in the corner or wing or out midfield. With Dublin, we chained Stephen Hiney to Shefflin a few times, but then Shefflin would anchor down at full-forward and we never wanted Stephen on the edge of the square. Henry and Brian Cody knew that as much as we did.
When he came on in the Leinster final last year, you knew his days were coming to an end but all his old cuteness was still visible. Liam Rushe was trying to do everything to lift us - fire-fighting, soloing up the field to launch attacks. Shefflin never went near Rushey, he just drifted into space. The match was gone so flat Kilkenny picked him out and he nailed three of the four chances he got.
Shefflin was some player but what I liked most about him was how he could mix it up. He never let anyone intimidate him. He marshalled everyone else around him. Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney spent a decade terrorising me and as soon as I step away, so do they. It’s nearly getting personal now!
You weren’t always privileged to be managing against Shefflin and some of those greats, because they caused you so much heartache, but it is still a privilege for our generation to always be able to say we played and managed against Henry Shefflin. In the week that’s in it, the last thing Kilkenny will want now is to be relegated.
There are four quarter- finals but the biggest game of the weekend is Clare-Kilkenny. I saw that myself last year when the Dublin players were more nervous for the relegation final against Waterford than they were for the Leinster final against Kilkenny. I expect Clare to come out like a championship team, with all guns blazing. If Clare won last weekend by seven or eight points, I think they’d be really up against it.
Now, the pressure is off. Kilkenny don’t do complacency but if they still think that the returning players will ensure they definitely get the job done, they could get hit with a haymaker. I’d actually give Clare a better chance of winning this week than last week but you’d still have to fancy Kilkenny.
Assessing the four quarter-finals, Offaly have made great progress under Brian Whelahan. He will be anxious for a performance and not to get hockeyed but Tipperary will be too strong. I expect Cork to beat Wexford, while I fancy an ever improving Waterford to win at home to Galway. The standout game of the four though, and the hardest one to call, is this evening’s Dublin and Limerick clash.
Ger Cunningham has experimented a lot and this is the ideal opportunity to see if the experiments are working. Are Peter Kelly and Conal Keaney going to be his numbers 3 and 6? Is Rushey going to work at 14? Is Johnny McCaffrey – the forgotten man of the league – back in the frame after his display from the bench against Galway? He may not be that anxious to get to a league final but two more big league games will tell Ger a lot more about his formation for the summer.
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