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'Henry has the attributes to be an inter-county manager... that's not to say it will be with Kilkenny'

Cats and Ballyhale star Joey Holden on his former teammate and club boss, and how hurling means so much, yet so little, at times.

WHILE HENRY SHEFFLIN’S successor as Ballyhale Shamrocks manager was appointed this week, club star and Kilkenny defender Joey Holden is expecting big things going forward from the Cats legend. 

henry-shefflin Recently-departed Ballyhale boss Henry Shefflin (file pic). Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

The back-to-back All-Ireland senior club championship winning boss stepped down in the aftermath of his native Ballyhale’s success last month, and Holden paid tribute to his former boss and team-mate today.

The Kilkenny vice-captain — who is back in training and will return to inter-county action over the next couple of weeks — says that he and his clubmates were unaware of Shefflin’s departure until he informed them a few days after the victory.

The focus beforehand was entirely on their meeting with Tipperary kingpins Borris-Ileigh, while ‘King Henry’ enjoyed the post-match celebrations for a few days prior to telling his players in a team meeting. 

“I don’t think any of it dampened the spirits,” Holden says. “He explained his reasons why — family commitments, he has five young kids and I think everyone understood the big commitment he had put into it.

“He said when he took over he would do two or three years, we didn’t expect that it would be two full on years as it was. Henry is the type of manager or character who is all in or not in at all. There is no half measures. It is a big commitment.

I think he just wants to enjoy this summer with his family before he potentially looks at future jobs, whatever he wants to go into then.

While it’s been thrown around a lot that Shefflin is the natural fit to one day replace Brian Cody at the Kilkenny helm, 29-year-old Holden believes he “certainly has the attributes to make it as an inter-county manager”.

Whether that be with his native county or not, he has a bright future ahead.

But Holden is unsure whether he’ll be the man to follow Cody, who’s currently in his 22nd season in charge.

“It’s hard to know,” he continues. “I’ve been asked this question a couple of times and it’s hard to know what the answer is. Brian is there and he’s enjoying the challenge. He’s leading Kilkenny. Who knows when that will change, that’s not for us to say. 

In regards to Henry and the attributes that he has, he has the attributes to be an inter-county manager. His level of detail and all of that is superb. I know if does go in he’ll surround himself with good people that he wants to have in there. 

“That’s not to say it will be Kilkenny, it could be any team in the future. Who knows what team it will be but he certainly has the attributes to make it as a manager.”

10-time All-Ireland champion Shefflin’s raw profile alone speaks measures. He’s seen it all and done it all as a player, and that transferred nicely into his role as Ballyhale manager.

He understood the “challenges and mental strain” that players experience, and he knew how to manage their loads between club and county. His impact on the team, and the club, has been massive.

“He’s been such an influence on so many careers in Ballyhale,” Holden enthuses. “Many little hurlers growing up wanted to be Henry Shefflin or mark Henry Shefflin.

henry-shefflin-and-joey-holden-celebrate-at-the-end-of-the-game Holden and Shefflin embrace after the 2014 All-Ireland final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“But he’s certainly brought a high level of professionalism almost to a club scene which would be unheard of. To mention his backroom team as well: you’ve Richie O’Neill, Paddy Phelan who’s a selector, James Fitzgerald, my own brother does the gear, and you had Tommy Shefflin, his brother is a trainer. So they were all top-class as well.

“He surrounded himself with top-class people, but he was the one that gathered all that together, spear-lined everything. The detail that they went into was really brought onto another level. So absolutely phenomenal.

The big thing for me with the manager is they say the right thing at the right time, and he seemed to nail that every time. Whether we played a bad match, what to say, whether we played a good match, to keep us grounded.

“All the time, he seemed to hit the nail on the head.”

He acknowledges the achievement of taking the side from being badly beaten in a county semi-final the year before Shefflin took over, to back-to-back All-Ireland crowns. 

How incredible it was to etch their names into history as the first Ballyhale team to retain the silverware. How, at the homecoming, what they had achieved really sunk in: “Even though we are a small parish, to see the streets packed with flags flying, kids cheering, it meant a lot to the players.”

Holden can’t exactly put his finger on what makes hurling-mad Ballyhale so special, but how the community came together and rallied through tough times this year was on another level. 

His eyes gloss over as the recent tragedies come to mind. Ballyhale dedicated their All-Ireland triumph to panelist Eugene Aylward, who died in a road accident in October.

“We finished it for Tank,” as Holden tweeted afterwards.

The Croke Park victory brought light to the parish once again, after the second tragedy to hit the club in 18 months. Eoin Doyle, another Ballyhale panellist, died in a motorbike accident in April 2018.

“The thing with ourselves and Borris-Ileigh all the way through, it was that kind of factor was always in the background,” Holden notes. “We’d been hit by one, but then hit by a second one broke the parish in a lot of ways.

“That day, that funeral to see, we carried the coffin from the church back up to the graveyard, which is just beside Eugene’s house. For us, we didn’t know how to handle it really. We met down on the pitch, and we just talked and we just chatted.

It makes you realise how short life can be and how fickle life can be, and when you get a chance to go out and hurl, a big thing for us is to go out and enjoy it.

“Go down and take it serious and do all the things right, but you’re down there because you love it and you have to enjoy it. That’s why you go down as a child, and that’s what you should continue to do when you go into your adult life.

joey-holden Joey Holden at the launch of Avonmore Protein Gold. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“But sometimes it can be forgotten, sometimes it can be a chore so it’s very much implanted in us that you have to enjoy it. You have to push yourself to get the best, but you have to enjoy it as well.”

Hurling means so much, but also so little in the grand scheme of things. 

Absolutely,” he nods. “It’s only a game at the end of the day. Yes, it’s a game you want to win and you want to do the best at. But it’s not life or death, if you lose. You learn from these things but certainly it does put things in perspective. Absolutely.

That’s something Holden carries with him into the new season with Kilkenny, and with Ballyhale. While it’s pretty similar at the top with Cody and the Cats despite the new backroom team, it will be the start of a whole new chapter with the club. 

Waterford native James O’Connor — who has built an impressive CV at club level — will fill the void created by the departure of Shefflin, and Holden is relishing the challenge ahead. 

“The news seemed to break through the media before we knew,” he notes. “And I don’t think it’s officially in place yet, but it looks like it is.

“James has a good record there and he seems to be putting things on the right line, he’d a great season with Fr O’Neills. So it’ll be very interesting, it’s a tough mantle to take over.

“But I’m sure the lads, after they have a little break, will be mad to go again.”

Kilkenny hurler Joey Holden has teamed up with Avonmore Protein Milk to launch their new premium protein milk, Avonmore Protein Gold.

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Emma Duffy

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