Iron determination and application key to Henry Shefflin’s ascent to greatness

So the end came over tea and scones. That seems a rather genteel way to conclude the greatest career in Gaelic games rather than, say, a last, frenzied attack to overturn a two-point deficit, a desperate free launched into a hostile square.

Yet when Henry Shefflin faced the crowd yesterday in Langton’s in Kilkenny, there was a curious domesticity to the proceedings and to the detail.

He had watched Clare versus Kilkenny last Sunday at home with his wife, and his inclination had hardened into a decision while sitting on the couch; his career-ending conversation with Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was conducted with those pastries on the table.

At first glance, a little like King Arthur deciding over coffee and doughnuts it was time to hang up Excalibur.

Was there something appropriate, though, about the pared-back occasion in the Set Theatre in Langton’s yesterday (next week Michael Jackson v Prince, There Can Be Only One)?

The surroundings certainly were. For almost a decade and a half the Kilkenny of Henry Shefflin’s time have held their pre-All-Ireland press events in Langton’s, where the team eats after training sessions.

(How many meals has the great man put away there after trooping down from Nowlan Park? How many chicken breasts and broccoli florets have restored him after a hard session?)

The press conference itself was brisk and to the point. Shefflin sat next to the Kilkenny county chairman Ned Quinn at a table and read a brief statement outlining his decision to retire and thanking all those who’d helped, after which Quinn outlined the Ballyhale man’s achievements.

There weren’t any soliloquies. Forget the Shakespeare, despite the looming stage behind, and think David Mamet: terse statements of facts which, in their scarcely believable catalogues, aspired to poetry (“Ten All-Ireland medals,” said Quinn. “Six National Hurling Leagues – he missed out on two through injuries,” and so on).

Shefflin, in a blue and white open-necked shirt, navy sports coat and khaki pants, took some questions from the floor before going through a series of media interviews, answering questions from what could only be described as serried ranks of GAA reporters and correspondents.

If you had a Gaelic games story you needed nobody to notice, of course, then yesterday was your chance to do so. A rapprochement among sundry Clare hurlers and management, or a decision by another Kerry football star to make a comeback would have caused hardly a ripple, such was the concentration of GAA media in the southeast.

There were no histrionics in Langton’s. No fanfare. Applause, yes, unsurprisingly given the large number of natives on the premises. A local observer made the point that there seemed to be more than the usual number of people having coffee in the front bar yesterday morning, people who somehow found their way to the area where the press conference was being held . . .

That was appropriate. After all, the man they were craning to have a look at was able to draw thousands to Nowlan Park that evening in 2010 when he trained ahead of the All-Ireland final against Tipperary: being box office on your return to the drills and sprints and pucking in lines shows the reverence for Shefflin in his own place.

Given the day that was in it he was focused on thanking his family, his wife, and his teammates, past and present, for their help and support over the years. But the competitor glinted through, too.

Roger Angell - to baseball writers what H. Shefflin is to hurling centre-forwards - once spoke to a pitcher close to retirement expecting “reminiscence and philosophy”. Instead, he said, he got something far more interesting in the conversation: mechanics.

In a similar vein, Shefflin was quizzed yesterday on what is now firmly established as everyone’s favourite performance of his, the drawn All-Ireland final against Galway in 2012.

That game’s dramatic conclusion, with a late Joe Canning point to level it, may be your starting point when remembering the game, but Shefflin’s display, moving out to centre-forward, is what makes the game glow for a lifetime. Yesterday he briefly revisited that day in September.

“That day something happened inside me that it’s very hard to describe,” he said.

“I felt like I was out there on my own. The ball used to go down the line and I was running after the ball – I just wanted to keep playing.

“That’s a feeling that sports people . . . I don’t think we achieve it apart from once or twice in our careers. It was a special day.

“I’ve had matches, semi-finals where I’ve scored a lot more – I think I scored one point from play that day – but it was just that everything I stood for transcended itself that day.”

Roger Angell would have appreciated the mix of reminiscence, philosophy and mechanics in that one.

It’ll take a day or two of appreciation before the machine cranks up - what this means for Kilkenny, what it means for hurling, what it means for all of us.

For now the appreciation is the point: at one stage Shefflin said himself how unthinkable it would have been to imagine his career when he was sixteen or seventeen, and by his own admission an unremarkable minor.

That may be the real legacy: that iron determination and application can drive a player of promise to a legend of fulfilment, a hard lesson but one applicable across many disciplines.

The effort required is huge but the rewards considerable. An hour after the formalities in Kilkenny I was on the road home and flicked on the car radio, and a feature popped up on rally driving in Donegal.

An aficionado explained to an interviewer the passion for the sport among the top drivers, their skill and dedication.

When he cast about for comparisons he settled on Paul O’Connell in rugby. Do you have to ask who he nominated in hurling?


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