Conor McDonald hopes to inflict the first setback on Henry Shefflin’s managerial career tomorrow, 12 years after a letter arrived from Shefflin that had so much influence on his own hurling ambitions.
Having helped Naomh Éanna of Gorey to a first Wexford SHC title, inter-county star McDonald lines up against 16-time Kilkenny champions Ballyhale Shamrocks in the Leinster semi-final tomorrow, with former Cats legend Shefflin in the opposition dugout.
McDonald faced Shefflin once on the pitch, when Kilkenny beat Wexford in the Allianz League in 2014, but an earlier encounter was even more memorable.
“I remember marking JJ Delaney and thinking ‘this is surreal; I can’t believe this is happening’. Between Rory Jacob and I, we scrambled the ball into the goal and got a massive roar, but that was short-lived: When Henry came on and he got the biggest roar of the day.
“To share the pitch with Henry is something that I would have never have thought about until it happened. He was finishing up and I was only starting. Going home from the game that day, you think of everything, like the letter he sent me.”
Shefflin wrote a two-page letter to the 11-year-old McDonald eight years earlier.
“It was December of 2006 and we had won our first county medal and only county medal until adult. It was Under-12 hurling against the Rapparees and I played with the likes of the lads on the senior team, Eoin Conroy, Pádraig Doyle, Seán Doyle, and Gearóid Cullen.”
The letter had a huge influence. McDonald would soon choose only to wear a green helmet. Black Puma Kings were added to his Santy list.
“Reading through it, he says: ‘I hope that you keep on improving as you grow and I have no doubt that I will be watching you in Croke Park in a couple of years’ time wearing the Purple and Gold.’
“When you’re 11 years of age, if your idol says something like that to you, it’s kind of driving you on.”
“It’s weird that the chain of events has happened,” said McDonald, who has admired Henry’s successful transition to management.
“All you think about is his success: 10 All-Ireland county titles and three All-Ireland club titles. When he steps on the other side of the line and when he’s trying to dictate things on the sideline, you don’t think that this is his first time managing. To come in and win a county final in your first year is serious. It’s a massive achievement for him, personally, to get such a kick-start.
He’s determined, though, to write another chapter in the Naomh Éanna success story.
“At the minute, every game we’re playing seems to be the most exciting thing in our lives. The whole town has gone berserk. We just keep thinking: ‘When’s the next one, when’s the next one.’ We just try winning another game and keeping that ball rolling.”