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16 for 16: The most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years - Henry Shefflin

The Kilkenny star was so much more than just the most decorated player of his generation.

HENRY SHEFFLIN IS the subject of the 14th in a series of articles focusing on the most important Irish sportspeople of the last 100 years. The list will include GAA players, Olympians, boxers, golfers and more who dared to dream.

Henry Shefflin 2/5/1999 Shefflin Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

I come from a part of the world where kids dream uncomplicated dreams. If you are a boy, you hurl. A girl? You probably play camogie. Those who grow up yearning to be airline pilots, racing drivers or heads of state probably feel a little eccentric in our midst. Maybe, in some eyes, that makes us one-dimensional, but the sky never seems unreachable in Kilkenny.”

- Henry Shefflin, The Autobiography

For a man who bleeds black and amber, it might come as some surprise to learn that Henry Shefflin lived the first days of his life as a Déise in Waterford Regional Hospital, where he was born on 11 January 1979, one of seven children of Henry and Mai.

Coincidentally, the year before Shefflin entered the world, Ballyhale Shamrocks — the local GAA club formed in 1972 following the amalgamation of Knocktopher and Knockmoylan — took home their first-ever senior hurling county title, a trick the club would repeat over and over again in the following three decades.

Shefflin’s was a sporting family with a strong hurling pedigree and his older brothers Tommy and John both experienced underage success with Kilkenny. However, Henry showed from an early age that there was something a bit special about the third Shefflin son, even if it first became apparent on the squash court.

There was something of a squash explosion in the 80s in Ireland and Henry Snr tried to take advantage of it by building a court out the back of the family pub in Ballyhale.

For a few years it was successful but, even when the wheels came off the bandwagon, Henry Jnr took advantage of the facilities and would wander out to the court with just a sliotar, a hurley and a 50p coin for the lights.

It was in St. Patrick’s National School that Shefflin’s hurling skills were really honed under the tutelage of Joe Dunphy, at teacher in Ballyhale for 38 years and a man who also had a guiding hand in the hurling education of Shefflin’s team-mates Michael Fennelly, Cha Fitzpatrick and TJ Reid.

It was Dunphy who first saw Shefflin as a corner-forward, something Brian Cody would agree with years later, even though the youngster always imagined himself in the centre-forward role.

Shefflin would come to national attention in 1996 when he helped St. Kieran’s to a Dr. Croke Cup title, the same year he won his first Leinster minor medal with Kilkenny when they beat Dublin in the provincial decider.

The then 20-year-old made his senior debut for the Cats in a National Hurling League defeat to Cork in February 1999 and kept his spot in the starting XV to make his championship debut in a 6-21 to 1-14 Leinster semi-final win over Laois. A few weeks later and he added the first of 13 provincial medals to his collection, scoring 1-6 as Kilkenny hammered Offaly.

Henry Shefflin 8/9/2002 DIGITAL The King celebrates yet another All-Ireland final goal. Source: INPHO

A year later, and the Cats would face the same opposition in the All-Ireland decider. Having lost to Cork in a dour affair the previous September, Shefflin and his team-mates made no mistake this time around, his 1-3 helping Kilkenny to a 5-15 to 1-14 win and a first Liam MacCarthy Cup for the Ballyhale man.

Shefflin and Kilkenny would add another six titles to their collection in the next 10 years but, 2010 — and the drive for five — would prove to be one of the most disappointing experiences of his career.

The Cats and their talisman started the season in imperious form, making light work of Dublin, Galway and Cork on their way to a fifth All-Ireland final in succession. Shefflin though, suffered a serious knee injury against the Rebels in the semi-final and nobody expected him to take any part in the decider.

Somewhat miraculously he was named in the starting XV for the match against Tipperary but only managed one score before he hobbled off looking a broken man after just 13 minutes as the Premier County put an end to his hopes of five-in-a-row.

Of course, you can’t keep a good Cat down and Shefflin bounced back to win his eighth and ninth titles in the following two seasons.

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

In 2014, he won his 10th and final Liam MacCarthy cup — become the first male GAA player to win ten All-Irelands on the field of play —  and though his role was limited that season, it didn’t make victory taste any less sweet. Indeed, Shefflin himself says of the win:

Isn’t it human to want the Hollywood ending? I did. In the dream, I’d play a blinder on my last big day for Kilkenny, securing that 10th All-Ireland medal through some heroic personal deed. The perfect sign-off, a hurling fairytale. It didn’t quite happen that way, of course. But I can honestly say it didn’t diminish my joy at the final whistle in Croke Park on 27 September 2014.”

In total Shefflin would help Killkenny to 10 All-Irelands, 13 Leinsters and six National Hurling Leagues. He also won three All-Ireland club titles with Ballyhale Shamrocks and two Fitzgibbon Cups with Waterford Institute of Technology. A three-time Hurler of the Year, Shefflin also picked up 11 All-Stars along the way.

His 27 goals and 484 points (565 points) also ranks as the top championship scorer of all-time. Not a bad return from a player who felt like he might have been played out of position from the start.

Over the next month, in association with Allianz Insurance, we’ll be profiling the 16 most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years.  Allianz Insurance — The world belongs to those who dare.

About the author:

The42 Team

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