IT WAS a year when most things were either black or white. Into the fading days of 2012 it was all bright, all glowing, all gushing as the gongs to acclaim achievement poured in, writes John Knox.
There was a record 9th All-Ireland winners’ medal. Tick! There was an 11th All-Star award. Tick! The Hurler of the Year award was won for the third time. Tick!
Oh, and a fifth Kilkenny senior championship medal was won with his beloved Ballyhale Shamrocks. Tick!
Henry Shefflin, or ‘King Henry’ as the headline writers title him, had toughed it out through the darkness of a physically and mentally testing seasons to put his name in lights.
Then some of the lights went out again. He picked up another injury in his last match of the season against Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford) in the Leinster club championship (see story page 1).
Typical of a year of stark contrasts for the greatest player the GAA has produced; the leading championship scorer of all time too, by the way.
“It is one of those things,” Henry said in acceptance of his latest setback. “I will just have to get on with it.”
Henry will celebrate his 34th birthday on January 11. He will be in recovery again at that time after having surgery.
Still, he is up for another season of duty in the black and amber.
The latest ankle injury is a setback, but is not in the same league as the two ruptured cruciate ligaments and damaged shoulder joint that in recent years robbed more than 20 months from his career.
A casual glance at 2012 would suggest all things were wonderful for Henry Shefflin. That would be from September on, until three weeks ago (the latest injury). There were many dark, dark days before that.
Carried Olympic torch
He got to carry the Olympic torch at the beginning of the year when in the depths of recovery from a shoulder injury that tested him, body and mind, to the last.
“That was a special occasion,” he recalled of his part in helping the journey of the Olympic torch to the ’Games in London. “It was something totally different. To do it in Croke Park was a special occasion for my family and me. To be representing the GAA was a brilliant honour.”
He really enjoyed that. It was a nice distraction away from hurling at the time.
The GAA approached him around February, wondering would he be their representative as torch bearer. Christy Cooney was the President at the time. He said they wanted Henry to be the Ambassador for the GAA.
Liam O’Neill then took over as President as he threw his weight being the plan.
“That is how it came about,” Henry said of something he regarded as a huge honour and that touched him deeply. “It was probably a decision that was made in Croke Park. There were very strict regulations as you can with the torch.
“There was only going to be one person carrying the torch in Croke Park. I was the lucky one to be given the honour.”
The roof top tours in Croke Park were only beginning at the time, so that was a factor as well in turning this part of the journey into a huge media event that went way beyond these shores.
“It was brilliant,” Henry insisted again. “Our children are small and at their age we wouldn’t be able to bring them to games. We (with is wife Deirdre) were able to bring them that day. It was nice to be able to do that.”
Part of the white!
In terms of injuries and so on, there were plenty of dark times. He damaged his shoulder in the drawn county final against James Stephens in The Fall of 2011. He didn’t realise the extent of the injury at the time.
Even when his right arm went dead on a couple of occasions for a short period during the replay, he wasn’t particularly perturbed. He thought it was something small, and that it would come right in a few weeks.
Two part to year
“There were two parts to my year,” he explained when he spoke to ’People Sport as part of our series with some of the high achievers from 2012. “The first part was all about the injury. It was very frustrating at times. That took a lot of work.
“Some days you would wonder was it going to come right at all. Other days you were sure it was. It was frustrating. I had a few ups and downs.
“There were times when it wasn’t right and it was affecting me. It was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Once I got over Galway in the Leinster final the injury to my shoulder was put into the background. That was a turning time for me and Kilkenny too. We started to drive on from there.”
The records will show that from July on, Kilkenny and Henry Shefflin enjoyed the good times.
But the journey can’t be recorded without the tough bits, the story of the pain, the sacrifices, the hardship, the worry, the hard, lonely slog back from a career threatening injury to full fitness before getting to the glory run outlined above.
Henry openly admitted there were times when he thought the shoulder injury might beat him, that it might end his career.
“I had a couple of serious setbacks,” he said when he revealed more detail about the problem than ever before. “In the gym around the time of the League final (May) I had to stop and walk out. I could barely put on my shirt. The pain was bad.
“It was a sort of stinger effect pain in the shoulder. I still remember that day. I ended up back in a sling. That was a black day. It wasn’t easy take that and be upbeat about surviving the rigours of a do or die championship match.”
That was deep into the season. The opening championship clash against Dublin was just around the corner. The thought wasn’t part of the equation, but Shefflin’s record of never having missed a championship tie under manager, Brian Cody – it stands at 62 not out – was on the line.
“Obviously when you have a day like that and you have a serious pain in your shoulder strange thoughts go through your mind,” Henry said, part in answer, part in question. “On days like that the normal quality of life rather than hurling would be a priority.
“That was a major concern for me,” he added.
Up to the Monday before the Dublin game in the Leinster championship in Portlaois he couldn’t puck a ball but he experienced the pain in the shoulder. Yet he got on with things, scored 0-10 from frees to help bury the Dubs.
“I am not saying it was a pain that was there the whole time, but when it came it was fairly bad,” he revealed. “It would very much restrict what you could do with your shoulder.
You begin to worry
“Obviously you then begin to worry and wonder will the pain come back. Will it come the morning of a match? Will it come the day of a match? You just don’t know.”
He didn’t endure sleepless nights because of pain or anguish, but he had concerns, serious, serious concerns.
Part of the black!
“I had great faith in the medical staff working with me,” Henry continued. “They were very supportive, very understanding. There were times when I leaned on them big time. They kept telling me it would be okay.
“The pain might be there for a day, a couple of hours and the next morning it might be better again. It was very much trial and error, see how things are today as I moved on in the recovery process.
“If you pushed things too much the shoulder would tell me I was pushing too hard.”
Most of the recovery work was done in the Hotel Kilkenny gym or weights room in Nowlan Park. Even at home when playing with the children or watching television he often found himself doing menial exercises. They were huge in the recovery process.
“Any rehab it very hard,” he said, and he admitted he drew on the experience gained during recovery after the two severed cruciate ligaments to steel him for the fight. “It is monotonous. The simple stuff you have to do to start getting going can be critical.”
Between the Dublin and Galway (Leinster final) championship games, which was pushing towards July, Shefflin was getting scans on his shoulder and was still attending a specialist.
“My total focus was not on hurling,” he admitted when he looked back. “The focus was on the injury. Your game suffers in a situation like that.”
After the Leinster final defeat by Galway he forced the decision on himself once and for all – the injury was going to be parked. If the shoulder gave up, it gave up. If it held, he was ready to let rip.
“The team had issues at that time,” he recalled.
“Everyone had to look at themselves. I had to decide there was no use worrying about the shoulder now. There were more pressing issues here.
“I forgot about the shoulder completely. I went off and tried to enjoy my hurling as best I could. To be honest, things settled down then. Maybe it was being more positive, and thinking about other stuff that helped.”
A good feeling
There was a local league match against Tullaroan on the horizon. He recalled going to training with Shamrocks the Wednesday after the Leinster final and thinking this was it. He was going to get stuck in.
“I remember feeling good,” he said with warmth in his voice. ”I was moving well. I kept telling myself to forget the injury and think about the hurling. I think things kicked on from there. I got a few scores and the confidence began to improve.”
The next championship engagement was the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick. Shefflin was flying. The touch, those clever runs which take him into danger zones without opponents noticing, were back in full flow. He bagged two first half goals on his way to a take of 2-6.
Henry was back. Kilkenny, after an average opening half, looked more assured.
“A lot of small things came together, and they all added up to something big for me,” was the way he put it on reflection. “I got a good run at training. I became more positive about the whole thing.”
Part of the white!
Getting back to that level was nerve testing. His first game back after seven months of rehab was against Dunnamaggin in the league. He did okay. Then he faced an accommodating St Martin’s, who never tried to squeeze him physically. He did better, even if he looked a long way from the Henry of old. Understandable!
Once he got back on the field the mindset changed. He had the experience of coming back after the other injuries. That helped.
“Once you are able to do it in training, you should have no fear,” was the way he explained his thinking at the time. “Obviously you are a bit nervous, but nothing too major. No one expected wonders.”
Some fans though that when he was back, he was back, and all would be well almost immediately. Reality was a different story.
“There is more to it than that,” he smiled. “You have to get your touch back, and regain your confidence that the things you were able to do before you can do again. That is all very much a part of it. Very much so!
“Getting back up to the speed of the game and everything is involved,” he added. “Because you have concern about the physical contact end of things after injury it takes time to feel at ease about it all. Being out for a month or a couple of months it always takes time to get back up to speed, to regain a bit of consistency.
“There is no short cut. You have to ease back. You need time and you need to put in the work. Things come right slowly. The more work you do the easier it becomes.
Believing is good
“You need to see things in front of you; seeing that you still have what made you a player before is still there, to believe. Once you start believing you are at a good stage.”
He knew after Limerick he was right.
“It is the time in the season to be enjoying the training, the craic with the lads, the excitement of the challenges ahead,” he added.
Part of the white!
He was happy and content going into the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. He scored 0-11 to take his total championship take to 27 goals and 459 points.
The All-Ireland final against Galway ended in a draw. Shefflin’s second half performance that day was out of this world. It was perhaps the best 35 minutes of hurling I had ever seen from any player.
Some Kilkenny defenders remarked afterwards that Shefflin was like a seven foot giant every time they looked up the field. He was always visible, always ready to receive a delivery.
What was his take on the display?
“It is very hard to describe something like that because it just happens in some games,” Henry opened. “You don’t plan these things. You don’t plan on running out over the sideline to get the ball to give it back to a Galway man, for example. Those things just happen.
“These things come out automatically once you get into the zone. Things started happening for me. I began to really enjoy the whole occasion, the whole atmosphere. It was one of those days when I felt really good. You feel like anything you do, you probably will do it right.
“Obviously you will make mistakes, but you don’t see them as mistakes because you feel like you are so sharp, you are thinking so straight. You feel like everything is coming together at that moment in time. Those days don’t happen very often.
“The whole thing about it is that you do enjoy it. You are in the thick of it. You know you are in the zone, as they say. It kind of happens. I was delighted it happened. It was a brilliant feeling to be honest.”
He felt good. Kilkenny, although under pressure during most of the first half, felt the benefits. They almost stole a win in the end, but a late point from a Galway free forced the issue to a replay.
Difficult and frustrating
“Everyone will tell you when you go out and have a top drawer game, or you are on top of your game, you can feel so good,” Henry added with enthusiasm. “That sort of day doesn’t happen too often. That is why we play sport, to chase days like that.
“Any sports person, be they playing junior soccer, the Premiership or anywhere, they love that feeling on a Saturday or Sunday when they are on top of their game.”
He was in a very different place. He enjoyed the whole double All-Ireland final experience.
“The first six months of the year were difficult and frustrating,” he said when he put the season in context. “Once I got over that the highs more than made up for the lows.
“If anyone asks me about 2012 I have to say it was an amazing year. I think the whole emotion of it made it all the sweeter the way it turned out. The mix of the hardship with the highs of success gave me a greater appreciation of everything, absolutely everything.
“It is like anyone, when you have a bad day and then you see light at the end of the tunnel. Then the light shines on you. Why wouldn’t you feel good? Why wouldn’t you be happy?”
The reaction to the winning of the 9th All-Ireland medal astounded. The good wishes flowed in from all parts and all places.
To him the achievement was not personal. It is an achievement for Kilkenny.
“I think it is a tribute to Kilkenny hurling as a whole, to the whole team and all the teams I played with,” he said. “Of all the teams Noel (Hickey) and I have been involved in it is a reflection of the entire effort. The emotion exploded in terms of attention. All the teams contributed.
“The whole nine thing of Noel and me was nice. One of our own, Noel Skehan had nine. There was talk of players from other counties and what they achieved. Our achievement was a great reflection of Kilkenny hurling all through the years.”
There was only one thing to do - enjoy it. He has!
“People ask did you ever think you might do it,” Henry continued. “Absolutely no way! You do think that maybe it would be lovely to do something. But to get what we got from the game is beyond any dream.
“When you get to my age you have to enjoy the occasions. I know I won’t be around forever. There is no point is standing back for the achievement. Enjoy it when you can, in the moment. Then you have to move on. You must always remember that.
“Winning last year won’t count for a lot when we go searching for success next season,” he said.
So, will the making of history lessen the pressures, because you are in bonus territory?
“We still have to go out and win matches,” shot the reply, keeping things in perspective. “There will be opponents trying to stop us doing so. In the off season we can talk about all these things, but when we go back training it stops.
“This year there was no pressure on Noel or me to win a 9th All-Ireland medal. It happened, and we are thrilled it did,” he said when he signed off.