After the All-Ireland club hurling final on St Patrick's Day, Henry Shefflin was the last Ballyhale Shamrocks player to walk up the steps.
As he bided his time, waiting for each of his team-mates to raise the cup, Shefflin looked in a pensive mood, almost devoid of the elation bursting out of his team-mates. Shefflin could have been quietly concealing his contentment, but he still appeared like somebody who had another thing on his mind.
Was his head telling him something his heart didn’t want to admit? Did Shefflin’s performance underline an absolute truth that he couldn’t hide from? After all the cups and glory and success, was Shefflin silently accepting that it was possibly his final time in Croke Park?
Shefflin’s decision about his future has been one of the most topical debates in hurling since last September. Ballyhale’s protracted club campaign allowed him to delay that decision, but the days after St Patrick’s Day was always a dateline for a deadline. For months, he had been giving reporters rehearsed answers. Now, a definitive answer is required.
Last winter, when Ballyhale were winning Kilkenny and Leinster club titles, Shefflin privately expressed his desire to return with Kilkenny. He still felt he had something to offer. He appeared to copperfasten that personal conviction in the All-Ireland semi-final against Gort. From 19 plays, Shefflin scored 0-5 from play, set up four more points, along with two other scoring chances. All afternoon, he was Ballyhale’s chief go-to-guy.
If Shefflin was to base any possible future with Kilkenny on his display eight days ago, the decision would be far more straightforward. Shefflin could have been in for a couple of goals, but he struggled to get to the tempo of the match and his legs looked gone.
But Shefflin could have located circumstantial evidence to ease his mind and maybe convince himself that he still had something to offer Kilkenny. Prior to the Gort game, Shefflin had trained hard and had played all five challenge games. Before the All-Ireland final, he was hardly able to train due to a shoulder injury. Outside of some running training, his only real preparation was half an hour of hurling.
Maybe there is also another practical issue on his mind. Given Kilkenny’s performances to date in the league, is Shefflin still one of the best forwards in the county? At the moment, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly, TJ Reid, and Richie Power are all locked in. Yet who will be the other two forwards? Just as importantly, who will be the backup? Could Shefflin still have a role in that capacity? With all the leaders they have lost, do Kilkenny need him for his leadership now more than ever?
Apart from that possibility or potential though, why should Shefflin stay? He has confirmed his status as probably the greatest player ever. He has nothing left to prove. Did last season with Kilkenny not tell him anyway that the endgame has probably arrived?
After starting every one of the first 61 matches of his career, Shefflin started just one of Kilkenny’s last 13 championship games. There was a time when Kilkenny and Brian Cody couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do without Shefflin. Six days before Kilkenny’s 2012 Leinster semi-final against Dublin, Shefflin couldn’t puck the ball off a wall after recovering from shoulder surgery, but Cody still started him.
His form in training last year was excellent, but Cody recast Shefflin as an impact sub and he had minimal impact during the 65 minutes he played in the entire championship.
Despite his age and his catalogue of serious injuries, Shefflin's importance to Kilkenny’s success grew in tandem with their evolvement into the greatest team of all time. As they got better they depended on him more, not less. His Hurler-of-the-Year form in 2012 confirmed that immutable fact, but Kilkenny had to move on without his presence and class for most of 2013. By 2014, Cody had made a firm decision on Shefflin. He could manage without him. Cody was also happy to hand other players the reins and lead the team. Some of them also displaced Shefflin as the sounding board he always was to Cody in the past.
Shefflin had lost control of the process which had defined his career – that dominant presence on the team. He may still feel the desire to try to reclaim some of that control, which is another reason why he has been in two minds over what to actually do.
At face value, the decision for Shefflin should be easy – walk away on a total high after another All-Ireland final win. Great players don’t think like everyone else. That capacity not to doubt themselves, to continually look to test themselves, to seek more, to want more, is part of what made them great in the first place.
Last Saturday night, Ballyhale had a gala evening, a dinner dance/medal presentation/race-night. Kilkenny county board chairman Ned Quinn presented the medals. In his presentation speech beforehand, Quinn made a plea to Shefflin to stay on to try to win an 11th All-Ireland medal. In the circumstances, Quinn may have only been engaging in diplomacy, but in an understated capacity, Quinn has also been a silent architect of Kilkenny’s modern dominance. Was he speaking for Cody? At the table, Shefflin smiled. Did he finally have peace of mind on the issue? The easy decision for him would be to walk away. The greatest players never think like everyone else.