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‘It’s great to be here, still standing in front of the mics!’ - Shefflin's return to All-Ireland final day

The Kilkenny icon will manage Ballyhale Shamrocks in next month’s club decider.

Henry Shefflin saw his team defeat Ballygunner yesterday.
Henry Shefflin saw his team defeat Ballygunner yesterday.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

A FAMILIAR POST-match feeling, just in a different guise.

Henry Shefflin is accustomed to that sense of victory soaking in after an All-Ireland senior semi-final. On the pitch he won 13 of them with Kilkenny and another three with Ballyhale Shamrocks.

That inherent satisfaction at having climbed over the last four hurdle, the growing excitement at the prospect of getting ready for an All-Ireland final.

Saturday evening in Thurles then represented nothing new in those emotions but standing in the tunnel under the Kinnane Stand, there was something novel in all this for an icon who has experienced most of what hurling has to offer.

He turned 40 in January, stands on the sideline now and had presided over a Ballyhale Shamrocks team booking a passage to Croke Park on 17 March as they toughed it out against Waterford’s flagbearers Ballygunner. As maiden managerial voyages go, it has been an undisputed success so far.

“It’s great to be here, still standing in front of the mics,” laughed Shefflin afterwards.

“I loved playing, there’s nothing beats playing but it’s great to be still involved and stil going alright. It is enjoyable, it’s brilliant.

“It brings its’ own challenges, of course it does. We put serious work in, no more than Ballygunner. You can plot and plan but you need the players to perfect and I think as the match went on, the players got better and better. It’s brilliant,

Even for a club with as rich a history as Ballyhale this was not a target that Shefflin had honed in on from the outset. Despite 17 Kilkenny, eight Leinster and six All-Ireland crowns to their credit, he was not setting lofty goals for the team twelve months ago.

“When I took over the lads, I was saying let’s do well in Kilkenny this year and hopefully maybe build for next year. It’s happened very quickly. When we got into Leinster we said let’s go for it. It’s kind of followed on that path since.

“It’s a great feeling to be heading back there. For any club player it’s a great experience and we’ve been privileged to be there before. We won’t take this opportunity lightly either.”

It is a new generation that Shefflin is working with. The pillars of the team are still in place with the Fennelly brothers in the spine, Joey Holden patrolling the edge of the square and TJ Reid pulling the strings in attack. But it is fresh wave of talent that has rejuvenated the side, products of the U21 teams that won the last two county finals in Kilkenny. They have rolled onto the senior stage and did plenty to engineer yesterday’s victory.

“I don’t think people realise, Dean (Mason) is 18, Darren (Mullen) is 20, Evan (Shefflin) is 19, Eoin (Cody) is 18, Adrian (Mullen) is 19. They’re very young players still. I think we have that nice balance and that bit of experience.

“Mick and Joey were marvellous today, TJ was leading the line very well in the first half. Colin to be fair was under pressure inside but he kept the line very well, he was looking very dangerous in there all day.

“I think we said it after Christmas we wanted the panel pushing hard. (Patrick Mullen) was one of the members that stuck his hand up and I think Mark Aylward coming in as well.

“It’s great to be involved with such a good bunch and it’s my own bunch. I know these lads very well. They put in serious work and Ballygunner put in savage work as well. You just want the lads to get the best out of themselves. I think they are playing to a very good standard, they apply themselves very well.”

Cody was a player that Shefflin was keen to single out. Last March St Kieran’s carried off another Croke Cup crown in Semple Stadium. Dean Mason was in goal, Adrian Mullen the leading light in attack and Cody a substitute introduced in the finale against Athenry before being brought off again ahead of extra-time.

Yesterday was a contrasting experience at the Thurles venue as he bagged 1-4, shooting the second-half goal that shaped the game. A lesson in perseverance.

“He’s talented, he can do that. If you give him the ball and he will finish. It’s brilliant. The last time he was here, he came on as a sub for Kieran’s this time last year and he was taken off again.

“So for any young lad listening in, you just keep going. He’s been skilful since he was a young chap. Mark and Eoin was a very tight call. The one thing we said about Eoin is if he gets a chance he’ll probably take it and that’s what he did.”

With Ballygunner accounted for, the final pits Ballyhale against St Thomas. Between club jousts with Loughrea and Portumna, and those county battles with the Tribesmen, there has been no shortage of big days against Galway outfits.

One more next month in the pursuit of silverware.

“They are a serious outfit, serious hurlers and we know it will be a big challenge for us. It is a long lead-in time for five weeks. When I was playing myself you only had two or three weeks. But we will plot and plan.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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