YOU rarely get the perfect goodbye in sport. Like politicians, athletes' careers tend to end in failure. So is it any surprise that Henry Shefflin should rip up the rules?
The greatest hurler of his generation - and possibly of all time - has spent a lifetime rewriting history, winning more All-Irelands in 16 years as a player than 26 counties have managed to collect in their history. So he earned the right last week to bid the game farewell on his terms.
He could have stayed. He could have persuaded himself, and possibly Brian Cody, that there was another season in him. He could have raged against his advancing years and hung around. But at 36 with nothing left to prove, or win, he was the one who called the shots. "I'm ready," he simply said. "I know it."
Few were prepared to disagree. The Shefflin they saw in last year's Championship was not the Shefflin whose combination of technical excellence and tactical authority turned him into the most prolific scorer in the game's history, and the most successful medallist since records began.
This version of the man was weaker. The touch was still there, but the ease with which he used to win possession and deliver scores, was gone. And Cody knew it. Why else did he use him so sparingly in the Championship? Faced with this reality again, Shefflin spared himself the humiliation.
"I know I made the right decision," he said. "You look and you say: 'is there an opportunity to be sitting on the bench and maybe not be playing?' I'm happy with my decision to go. I'm happy with my career."
He should be. What started in 1999 as a young man on a personal journey ended with the record books being rewritten to include his name as the man who won more All-Irelands, more player of the year titles, and more All-Stars, than any other.
It's no coincidence that his success coincided with Cody's. That summer of 1999 was their first as a pairing, Shefflin as the rookie player, Cody as the rookie manager. But back then both men were overshadowed by the presence on the Kilkenny team of DJ Carey, who just a year after his first retirement, was chasing just the third All-Ireland of his career.
As a trio they shared six years together on the circuit, Carey, inevitably as the head of department on the field for the first couple of years, before Shefflin flexed his muscles and took control.
That the relationship worked so well is because Carey put so much time into it.
“I remember arriving up to training the first night,” Shefflin once said. “DJ would have been my hero, and all that, but he kind of has this way about him that makes you relax in his company. From the very start, he made me feel good about myself.”
If Carey was good for Shefflin then so too was Henry for DJ - their affair blossoming with Cody as chaperon.
“There’s no doubt Henry took the pressure off DJ,” says Eddie Brennan, who joined the panel in November 1999. “I mean, while it would be unfair to say DJ carried the Kilkenny side of the 90s on his own, by the same token he was head and shoulders above the rest. He was our banker to pull a result out for us.
“He was the free-taker, the go-to-man, the guy other teams knew they had to stop. Think back to the 1997 All-Ireland semi-final between Clare and Kilkenny. Clare knew if they handled DJ, they’d win. And they did. But by 1999, Henry was there to share the free-taking duties, leaving DJ to think more about his own game. Plus, Charlie Carter was at the peak of his powers then too. All that would have taken a hell of a lot of heat off DJ.”
Suddenly Carey smoothly moved back into top gear, winning a second Hurler of the Year title in 2000, scoring nine goals in eight Championship games during Shefflin’s first two seasons, the hottest streak of his career. “In many ways, they’d be similar characters,” Brennan says. “There’d be no ego there with either of them. Both would be fierce grounded and would talk to any new lad coming into a panel. He showed that humility to Henry right from the get-go and clearly had enormous respect for him. Think about it. Here was the best player of his generation letting a new guy take the frees right from the word go on his Championship debut. He wouldn’t have cared if it was Henry or him scoring. There was never a debate or a fight over who should take the frees. DJ’s no prima-donna. And even if he was, Brian wouldn’t have tolerated it. He‘d have no divas in the dressing room.”
Instead, he had the two of the best players in Kilkenny’s history forming two-thirds of his full-forward line, a combination which was enough to bring the Cats All-Ireland glory in 2000, but not a year later.
By now, it was clear there was a malfunction in their system. To start with, Shefflin hated playing corner-forward. He didn't score from play in the 2001 Leinster final and in that year's All-Ireland semi against Galway, Gregory Kennedy ‘horsed him out of it’. DJ was still the man.
But the next year, arguably, saw the changing of the guard. Traumatised by the Galway defeat, Cody restructured the spine of his side, relocating Shefflin to centre-forward. That day, he and Carey, contributed three-quarters of Kilkenny’s scores, Shefflin getting 1-7, Carey 1-6, and in terms of statistical evidence alone, you could argue they were equals.
But others thought differently. One was Johnny Pilkington, the Offaly midfielder, who felt holding Shefflin was now the key to stopping Kilkenny. “He was the supplier and finisher mixed into one,” Pilkington said. “Up until then we’d have thought DJ was the one to look out for. But by that year we felt Henry had overtaken him.”
And Brennan is inclined to agree, saying: “By 2002, Henry had really taken over as a leader of the team. He was the centre-forward, the one who went toe-to-toe with Seanie McMahon and David Kennedy and outplayed them. DJ was still DJ, but Henry was voted hurler of the year.”
From here on in, the dynamic of the Kilkenny team changed with a small incident in the 2004 All-Ireland final, when Shefflin walked up to Carey's side in the first-half of a game Kilkenny would ultimately lose to Cork, acting as the moment when the baton was passed. Carey, having missed a couple of shots prior to then from similar distances, handed over the sliotar to Shefflin, allowing him take the free and symbolically acknowledging his time was up.
The years since have confirmed Shefflin’s status as the better player, the higher scorer, the winner of more All-Irelands. Is Carey bothered?
“Not in the least,” he says. “I have no regrets from my career. I had a great time. I won five All-Irelands. And okay I sometimes wish I was born later so that I could have been around for this Kilkenny era, but I suppose in my day, I got more kudos for playing at a time when Kilkenny were perceived to be not as strong. So you have to give Henry his due because in my eyes, he is the best player I have ever seen. I cannot talk about Christy Ring or Eddie Keher because I didn’t see them play. My view of the hurling world only dates from 1980. And in that time, Henry’s all-round ability, strength, skill, athleticism, nerve and dedication makes him superior to any other player.”
Including DJ. If Carey was an important navigator in the early years of Shefflin’s journey then Cody‘s role was arguably even more significant.
As a player, he had contributed vitally to Kilkenny’s winning All-Ireland teams of 1975, 1982 and 1983, yet despite the excellence of this personal record, Cody walked into management feeling desperately unfulfilled.
And it was this hunger, coupled with an appreciation of the way the game had changed dramatically in the 90s, which laid the foundation for 16 years of unprecedented success.
Memorably they lost the 1999 All-Ireland final, outmanoeuvred by a Cork side whose work-rate exceeded theirs on a rain-swept September Sunday, and in the following years, Cody jettisoned the idea of picking players on their past reputation, focusing instead on men who would sacrifice their ego for the sake of the team.
Good players would come and go. Great players - like Carey - would be allowed the respect to leave on their terms. But they knew they had to leave. Cody wasn't into personal farewell tours. Carey wasn't allowed a lap of honour. Shefflin, over the past winter, remembered this. He could go his way now or Cody's way later. He took the easier option.
There can be no regrets. All those All-Irelands are beyond the reach of most counties, never mind most players. Limerick, the fourth most successful county in hurling history, have seven All-Irelands to their name, the last coming in 1973. Shefflin has 10.
Wexford, the third most successful county in Leinster hurling history, have won 20 Leinsters. Shefflin has 13 provincial medals.
He was a scorer, a playmaker, a leader, a warrior, all rolled into one. "The nicest compliment of all came from Brian (Cody). He just said, 'Henry, you got the most out of yourself that you could'." So there can be no regrets - except the passing of time.