Henry Shefflin on being a spectator and the upcoming championship
June 21, 2015, marks the first day in the rest of the life of Henry Shefflin. For the first time in his adult life he will go as a spectator to a championship match involving Kilkenny.
The All-Ireland title holders begin the defence of their provincial crown at Nowlan Park that day, probably against Wexford. But the game’s most decorated star will have absolutely no influence on the outcome.
“It will be a whole new experience going to Kilkenny games as a spectator. The fact that I’m no longer involved will probably hit home that day. At the moment it’s a bit of a novelty.
“The last time I remember being a spectator at a Kilkenny match was the 1998 All-Ireland Final. My brother Paul was captain of the Kilkenny minor team that day and I have distinct memories of travelling up to the game and of Brian Whelehan’s performance in the senior match.”
On the field it wasn’t a memorable days for the Cats, the minor side lost to Cork while the senior team were beaten by Offaly after Whelehan’s switch to full-forward changed the course of the decider.
Nobody leaving Croke Park that evening could have envisaged what would happen next in the world of hurling.
Come the 1999 championship Brian Cody was in charge of Kilkenny and Shefflin had been parachuted into the senior squad. He played in the 1999 final – the first of 13 All-Ireland Final appearances during a majestic career which yielded a record haul of 10 winner’s medals.
He’s still weaning himself off the routine of being an inter-county hurler. When he sees his neighbours in Ballyhale, TJ Reid and the Fennelly brothers, Michael and Colin, heading off to training in Nowlan Park he momentarily forgets that he has retired and wonders why he’s isn’t heading for the city as well.
It could be the year of high-profile retirements in the sporting world. Already Shefflin and the world’s greatest jump jockey Tony McCoy have stepped away from the sport they loved in 2015. Although he’s not an aficionado of National Hunt racing, Shefflin couldn’t but have noticed the phenomenal figures in McCoy’s career. “Obviously I was in awe of what he achieved.”
But it was something else that struck Shefflin as he read the interviews the Co Antrim-born jockey gave when he hung up his saddle and whip. “It brought it home to me the difference between amateur and professional sportsmen. This was his whole life.
“I have my work and I still can stay involved in the sport. I was talking to Tommy Walsh about this and how important it is to be able to still play hurling for your club once you retire from the inter-county game. It’s not like Tony can ride in donkey derbies. So in that sense GAA players have the best of both worlds.
“From a practical point of view, professionalism is not an option in Gaelic games anyway. We have the best of both worlds. The club is so important to the whole GAA ethos.”
In a throwaway comment at the press conference to announce his retirement, he mentioned that he now would have more time to look after the Ballyhale Shamrocks U-6 squad. The team mentors didn’t miss the remark and he’s now involved with the squad.
“It’s just a matter of getting them down to the field. We don’t take it serious until they are under eight,” he jokes.
Shefflin has signed up as a panellist with the Sunday Game and like most commentators he is expecting a very open championship in the coming months.
“I believe Kilkenny and Tipperary will both want to go the direct route or at the very least reach the provincials finals. Kilkenny have been on the road so long that they want to avoid as many trap doors as possible.
“At least when you get to a provincial final you are guaranteed a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals which means only one extra game.”
Shefflin’s views may be coloured by his own experience. In the two seasons during his career that Kilkenny failed to reach the Leinster final (2004 and 2013) they subsequently failed to win the All-Ireland.
Now that he has retired from the inter-county game he won’t ever get a chance to take a penalty under the new rules where he would have faced the game’s leading goalkeepers in a one-on-one shoot out.
“The new rule will definitely make a difference, the advantage is back with the penalty taker again.”
One suspects, given his competitive streak, Shefflin would have enjoyed that challenge, though club goalkeepers in Kilkenny will now have the dubious pleasure of facing him alone when Ballyhale are awarded penalties.
He hasn’t played since the All-Ireland Club Final on St Patrick’s Day. “The team management gave the older players a break afterwards. I wasn’t happy about it but now looking back on it I’m glad of the break.”
Come the summer though, it will be a case of heading for a Kilkenny club ground to see the greatest hurler of all time play out the autumn days of his career.