King Henry Shefflin’s class will always win out

Heartfelt commiserations to King Henry Shefflin, who limped out of Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final after just 12 minutes of a game that, even then, seemed beyond his Kilkenny and beyond the call of history.


Shefflin has been betrayed as some sort of villain in many quarters since Sunday’s eight-point defeat, simply for having the cheek to start the biggest match in the GAA’s recent history.

Those who claim to know better -- many of whom have never won one All-Ireland in a row, never mind four -- believe Shefflin did Kilkenny some sort of disservice by trying to add his considerable weight to the Cats famous Drive for Five on Sunday afternoon.

Just a few weeks ago, Shefflin tore a cruciate ligament when he landed heavily during the semifinal victory over Cork on the same Croke Park pitch.

Initial recommendations from his knee specialist consigned Shefflin to the absentee list long before the ball was thrown in against Tipperary in the game that could have rewritten the GAA’s history books.

No side, you see, has ever won five All-Irelands in a row. Not in the noble art of hurling and not in the more ferocious sport of Gaelic football.

Kerry came close on the football field until Seamus Darby scored the last minute goal that denied Mick O’Dwyer’s men their place in the history books way back in 1982.

Current Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins, the man who wears a Manchester United jersey under his county shirt, admitted to The Irish Times last week that, as a kid sat on his father’s lap in the Hogan Stand that day, he cried for Kerry when that goal went in all of 28 years ago.

Cummins cried again on Sunday, but this time his tears were tears of joy, confirmation at the final whistle that the Premier County had denied their fiercest hurling rivals their unique place at the top table.

By the time Tipp’s 26th McCarthy Cup victory was confirmed, Shefflin was back on crutches and the painful gamble he took to make Sunday’s game had backfired.

He lasted just 12 minutes of the biggest game of his life, but for that effort alone he should be praised, not ridiculed.

For weeks beforehand, King Henry had worked diligently with Limerick native Ger Hartman, the most famous Irish physio of all time and a man even more famous than soccer’s Mick Byrne who played such a big role in the 1990, 1994 and 2002 World Cups.

Hartman couldn’t repair the rip to Shefflin’s cruciate that will undergo the inevitable surgery in the next few weeks, an operation that could sideline the greatest player of his generation for a year or more.

What the man with the magic hands could do was build up the muscles around Shefflin’s knee and the confidence within his mind that he could last 70 minutes against Tipperary, play his part in an historic win and then check in for that operation.

Shefflin’s desire to play in what could have been the biggest Kilkenny hurling match ever should be understandable, even to those smart asses who derided him in Monday morning’s papers.
As someone who ran into a hole on a soccer pitch in Ratoath that sent his knee one way and his leg the other all of 26 years ago, I do know what I am talking about here.

That night, in a stupid five-a-side I tore a cartilage, ripped a cruciate and finished a blossoming career in the Meath and District League.

Even after two serious operations, one of them in a Navan hospital theater that was closed down by the Health Service Executive just last week, I still tried to wear the Dunshaughlin Dynamoes shirt with pride.

On more than one occasion I begged my playing partners to “spray it anywhere” as the knee popped out in places like Agher and Mullingar and Dalgan Park, home of the mighty Navan Cosmos.

We never played in an All-Ireland final. In fact as Dynamoes we’d have been lucky to go for five MDL wins in a row, never mind five senior titles.

But that didn’t diminish or demean my desire to play through an injury that was always insurmountable, so much so that last year I had the knee taken out and replaced with a titanium one that causes great fun at airport x-ray machines but has removed all the old pain from that creaking joint.

Anyone with a big injury wants one thing and one thing only -- to play again.

Henry Shefflin is no different. He didn’t try to defy medical science last Sunday. All he tried to do was offer his input into a bid by his team and his team-mates to rewrite the history books.
Injury should never have deprived him, or Kilkenny for that matter, of the chance to win the five-in-a-row.

As it transpired, Kilkenny were never going to beat a hungry Tipp in the sort of form they displayed for the 12 minutes Shefflin was on the field and for the 58 minutes he watched from the sidelines with those crutches propping up his knee as well as his regrets.
If all goes well with his op Henry Shefflin will be back, but it’s unlikely he will ever come close to winning five All-Ireland titles in a row ever again. That’s why he deserved better last Sunday.

Sideline Views

SOCCER: Bad news for Bono and the boys in U2 -- nobody has ever heard of them in Yerevan. Most places we go with the Irish soccer team you just mention U2 to the locals and they know straight away where you’re from. But not in Armenia’s capital city last weekend where a hotel waiter, a street cafe barman and even a taxi driver who lived in San Francisco back in the 1970s all looked on blankly when U2 have been mentioned. I also threw out Thin Lizzy, Bob Geldof, the Boomtown Rats, Horslips and even the Corrs in conversation with the locals, but all to no avail. Maybe there’s a big export for Irish rock in that far flung corner of Europe some seven hours flying time from Dublin.

SOCCER: Brian Kerr clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humor following his recent appointment as manager of the Faroe Islands soccer team. Unhappy with the length of the grass at the training pitch offered to his team by their Italian hosts in Florence on Monday, Kerr came out with a great line. “The grass on our training pitch is so high that all the sheep in the Faroes would take a month to eat it,” Kerr told an amused press conference. It didn’t help that one of his key players injured his ankles on the so called training pitch. It could never have happened during his time with the FAI, could it?

SOCCER: Nice bit of banter at the Irish soccer team’s press conference on Monday when Robbie Keane was asked about his involvement in the Dubs vs. Culchies syndicate that owns the St. Devote racehorse, already a two time winner in a very young career. Keane is joined in the owner’s enclosure by Damien Duff, Stephen Hunt, John O’Shea and Kevin Doyle but insists his role is purely that of an interested spectator. “I don’t feed the horse, we leave that to John O’Shea who knows where to get a few potatoes down the country,” quipped Robbie. We’re still awaiting the Waterford man’s reply to the Dublin jibe.

HURLING: Nice touch from the Tipperary hurlers who made their way to the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin with the McCarthy Cup on Monday before returning to Thurles in triumph aboard a special Irish Rail train. Even in the hour of their greatest triumph they didn’t forget those in less fortunate circumstances than themselves.

SOCCER: Giovanni Trapattoni and Robbie Keane shared the top table at the Irish team’s press conference on Monday when Trap claimed his players needed to deliver a “kapow” against Andorra on Tuesday night. So now we have Batman and Robbie with the Irish team. Sorry!

HERO OF THE WEEK

Ireland's new soccer hero Keith Fahey gets an honorable mention, but the performance of the week came from Tipperary’s Lar Corbett in the All-Ireland hurling final demolition of Kilkenny and their pursuit of an historic five-in-a-row. Corbett’s hat-trick put those ambitions back in cold storage fairly ruthlessly with a powerful display that was worthy of his Man of the Match award.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK

The pundits have been queuing up to lash Kilkenny star Henry Shefflin and his manager Brian Cody for the decision to start Sunday’s All-Ireland final defeat to Tipp just weeks after the best player in the country tore his cruciate ligament. Shefflin worked hard to get himself fit for the final with world class physio Ger Hartman and clearly believed he could withstand 70 minutes of action. At the very least, he has given enough to Kilkenny hurling to be allowed to take that chance. Anyone who questions his decision is an idiot. And there were many in Monday morning’s papers.

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