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Shefflin the manager: Attention to detail, motivator and straight shooter

Henry Shefflin comes face-to-face with Brian Cody on the sideline for the first time tomorrow.

henry-shefflin Galway manager Henry Shefflin. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

HENRY SHEFFLIN TELLS a story in his autobiography that sums up Brian Cody’s ability to motivate his players, even the great ones.

It takes place on a Kilkenny training camp the week before they played Galway in the 2006 All-Ireland quarter-final. The setting is a conference room in the Monart Spa resort in Wexford.

It’s been three years since the Cats have won the All-Ireland and they’re gunning to stop Cork’s three-in-a-row bid.

Before they can think about Cork, Galway must be stopped first. Kilkenny are reigning Walsh Cup, league and Leinster champions. Momentum is on their side. On paper, things are going well.

But the atmosphere at the meeting is tense. Mick Dempsey takes the floor and challenges the players to take things to the next level. He adds that some lads haven’t been training as they should.

James Ryall, who hadn’t been making the team, says some players are being picked on reputation alone.

Things are getting hot and heavy. Then Cody stands up. He goes for the jugular.

He talks with disdain about fellas in the room, former Hurlers of the Year, that needed to get their arses into gear. He “didn’t give a shit” about what any of them had won in the past.

Shefflin looks around the room and realises only himself and JJ Delaney had won the Hurler of the Year award before.

Cody doesn’t directly mention Shefflin’s name, but the Ballyhale man feels attacked.

“I was bulling,” he wrote. “To me, Brian had been having a go at me personally. When the meeting ended I stormed back to my room, where Derek Long and Michael Kavanagh had to sit listening to me rant. I wanted to go straight to Brian’s room and tell him what I thought of him. But needless to say, I didn’t.

“I’ve no doubt that Brian wanted that anger inside me, maybe inside every one of us.”

After arriving home from the training camp, Cody’s words were still ringing in Shefflin’s ears. “Over and over, I found myself saying to (my wife) Deirdre, I’ll show him!’ Looking back, if I was asked to pick one example of his management that defined Brian Cody’s greatness, that weekend in ’06 would probably be it.

“He had me exactly where he wanted me.”

Shefflin led the way as Kilkenny beat Galway by five points, scoring 11 points and finding some of his best form. A Cats side some thought was past its best went on to lift the All-Ireland, beating Cork in the final. It was the first of four successive Liam MacCarthy Cups. The birth of one of the all-time great times.

brian-cody-and-henry-shefflin-celebrate-winning Cody and Shefflin were the most successful manager-player double-act in the game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Shefflin will meet his old mentor on the sideline for the first time tomorrow, donning the Galway colours against his native county. His rise in management has been swift. The success was immediate.

During his two seasons over Ballyhale Shamrocks, he never experienced a defeat. Two county, provincial and All-Ireland titles were annexed in a remarkably successful stint, even if Ballyhale had top quality players available to them.

“He’s a great motivator,” says John Kenneally, the Ballyhale chairman who handed Shefflin his first job in management.

“I’ve been in umpteen dressing rooms with him. I have an unusual record, I never went into a defeated championship dressing room with him. He’s a very good speaker I have to say and a very good motivator.

“He’s totally hands on,” he adds.

“He was active (on the training field). He wants it done the right way. He worked hand in hand with Tommy (Shefflin) and Richie (O’Neill). They had their plan laid out and that was it. If a guy wasn’t prepared to do it, he wasn’t long being told he wasn’t doing it the right way.

“He’s not afraid to call it straight. When he has to be he can be quite vocal. And if you’re not prepared to listen you’ll be standing on the sideline alongside him.”

After his trophy-laiden tenure in Ballyhale ended, Shefflin surprisingly popped up in neighbouring club Thomastown as manager.

With no vacancy for the Kilkenny job and Shefflin unwilling to manage against Ballyhale, the Kilkenny intermediate side presented an opportunity to keep his coaching eye in. 

“We put a wish list together and obviously he was on it,” recalls Thomastown chairman Ger Walsh.

“I went out and knocked on his door. It wasn’t something you do with a phone call, I thought. We’d be neighbouring parishes. I wouldn’t have known him socially or anything. We’d have been nodding acquaintances.

“I knocked on his door one Saturday morning. He came out and looked at me as much to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ So I said to him, ‘Your name came up, would you be interested?’

“We talked for a couple of minutes and he said, ‘Leave it with me, I’ll come back to you during the week.’ He came back to me during the week and we sat down to talk to see if it would work. That’s how it came about basically.”

Walsh was impressed with how Shefflin ran the operation, even if their championship ended at the semi-final stage against Glenmore.

“The atmosphere, the professionalism was second to none. The actual boost it gave us. The previous year we’d been beaten in a penalty shootout in the county final. So the club itself, a lot of players were questioning (things).

“Henry coming on board provided a huge lift for the players but for the club as well in general. They really took to him, in the first meeting down there was 45 or 46 players at it. He set out his stall for what he wanted to do. Everyone took it on board.

“Richie O’Neill looked after the nightly coaching. But Henry would step in if he saw something, he’d call them in. He’d be involved the whole time but he wouldn’t be barking orders or shouting or putting out cones.

henry-shefflin Shefflin talks to the Galway players before they played Westmeath. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

“He would participate every night at something. If he saw something wrong or wanted to reinforce something. Richie would talk and Henry would step in and reinforce then again.

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“He’d ring me every Monday morning after a match. Not for my take but he’d be asking me stuff as chairman. He would never seem to overstep. Even though it could be the smallest detail, he’d still ring you. His attention to detail is immense, but team-wise and individually. 

“He would have spoken to everyone individually over the time he was here to get the best out of the players.

“Nothing was left to chance. I know we didn’t win a county final but you can’t lay that at his door. Everything was in place to succeed and I think it was a failing of our own on the day that we were beaten.”

Galway got in touch the week before they were due to play the semi-final and Shefflin informed Walsh immediately that he was considering taking the job. Shefflin was adamant his concentration was solely on the club job until the season was over. 

Then the news broke in the media the week of the Glenmore game, which “wasn’t ideal” admits Walsh. At a meeting with the squad, Shefflin “made it clear that he was not in the Galway job, he was in the Thomastown job at that stage.”

Walsh continues, “And that was his full focus. I remember the night he did speak every well to the players below. They did accept that, that he was still in the Thomastown job until it was finished.

“We were sorry for him to go because he would have stayed for a second year. He was anxious to do that. But when the position arose, the conversation I had with him – sure it wasn’t as if we were going to hold him back -  but he had to take it.

“It’s a huge position for him. For his first foray into inter-county management there would be easier jobs out there.”

Off the field, Shefflin showed grace in how he dealt with tragedy during his time over Ballyhale too.

They lost two panel members in tragic circumstances in 2018 and 2019. When they lifted the All-Ireland club title on St Patrick’s Day in 2019, Eoin Doyle’s old jersey was proudly hanging up in the Croke Park dressing room, as it had been for much of that campaign. 

The following year they brought Eugene Aylward’s number 19 jersey for every step of the journey to the Tommy Moore Cup.

“It came from the management,” Kenneally says of those tributes. “We were after burying two players. Eugene had been a big character in the dressing room and Eoin. It’s tough, that’s all you can say. I’ve seen grown men crying too many times in this parish.”

Then came the sudden death of his own brother Paul in early March.

“Henry would have been close to the lads and now it’s happened with his own brother, it’s very sad. No-one seems to know why it’s happening down here, but it’s happening. It’s not easy.

“He was very close to his brother, there wasn’t much between the two of them in age. It’s not easy to then go back into that job.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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