Christy O’Connor: ‘King’ Henry Shefflin couldn’t remake Galway in his image

Galway manager Henry Shefflin
Galway manager Henry Shefflin

In the aftermath of Galway’s defeat to Dublin last Sunday, when Henry Shefflin was asked about what he would weigh up in the coming days, Shefflin paused for five seconds before giving his answer.

At one stage, Shefflin clearly got emotional before steadying himself again in mid-sentence. He mentioned his family twice, and the sacrifices his commitment to Galway placed on them. “I’m going to be very low,” said Shefflin. “For me, it’s going to be hurt for a few days, take a break and try and get back to normal.”

For Shefflin, his experience as Galway manager over the last three years has been anything but normal, being more abnormal in the context of what Shefflin has been used to throughout his career with Kilkenny and Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Henry Shefflin (right) helped Kilkenny complete an All-Ireland SHC four-in-a-row by beating Tipperary in the 2009 Final.
Henry Shefflin (right) helped Kilkenny complete an All-Ireland SHC four-in-a-row by beating Tipperary in the 2009 Final.

Shefflin is the most decorated hurler in history, with ten senior All-Irelands and 11 All-Stars, but it’s untrue to say that he didn’t face huge adversity and challenges throughout that career.

He wasn’t a marquee underage player. Shefflin’s free-taking cracked under pressure when Kilkenny lost the 1997 All-Ireland minor semi-final to Clare by one score. A year later in 1998, the Kilkenny Intermediates arrived to play a challenge game with 16 players and Shefflin ended up being the only sub.

Shefflin had three All-Irelands and had been Hurler-of-the-Year by the time Ballyhale lost a county final to James Stephens in 2005 when he failed to score from play. By the end of the following season, Shefflin was Hurler-of-the-Year for the second time while he had driven Ballyhale to a first county title in 15 years, with the Shamrocks going on to secure an All-Ireland the following March.

That September, in 2007, Sheffin tore his cruciate ligament in the All-Ireland final. Three years later, he suffered the same injury in the All-Ireland semi-final. The latter part of Shefflin’s career was also blighted by shoulder reconstruction and a broken foot.

Sustained excellence was always the badge of Shefflin’s identity but adversity shaped him. And overcoming all those challenges defined Shefflin as much as his success.

And yet the challenges he faced as Galway manager tested him as much as anything else, purely because Shefflin must have been frustrated beyond reason that he couldn’t inspire the Galway squad to do better.

As a player, he had always felt that pressure to perform and to lead. The great players put themselves in those positions because they expect to deliver “That’s why we do sport,” said Shefflin last Sunday after the game. “It’s easy to sit at home and watch the TV but you have to front up and go out there.”

Galway's David Burke puts Kilkenny's Richie Hogan under pressure during the Leinster hurling final at Croke Park  
Galway's David Burke puts Kilkenny's Richie Hogan under pressure during the Leinster hurling final at Croke Park  

Shefflin’s willingness to fully immerse himself in an inter-county job for the first time, especially a senior side so far away, but in the same province as Kilkenny – and knowing how much heat that was going to bring - offered even more proof of how much he craved the challenge.

Shefflin went to Galway to win All-Irelands but, apart from his first season in 2022, Galway never looked anywhere close to reaching that standard. Even at that, Galway fell apart in the last quarter of the 2022 Leinster final against Kilkenny.

The team looked to be on an upward graph in last year’s Leinster championship but they never recovered from the concession of a last-second goal to Kilkenny in the Leinster final. Galway’s inconsistency has been an issue for years but it progressively got worse this season. The nadir was the performance against Wexford four weeks ago when Galway looked shambolic.

That deterioration was all the more agonising again considering how Shefflin kept trying to improve the situation. At the end of last year, Johnny O’Connor, the former rugby international, was appointed as their new athletic lead. Shefflin also persuaded Eamon O’Shea to join his coaching team.

The arrival of O’Shea, Tipp’s brilliant and innovative coach for their All-Ireland wins in 2010 and 2019, was seen as a game-changer. And yet, Galway’s attacking play was no more creative, imaginative or penetrative as it had been during the two previous years.

After Galway played Dublin last year, Joe Canning questioned their style. “I could see no pattern to their attacking play,” he wrote in his column. “Too many lads were playing like individuals.”

After last Sunday, Canning couldn’t see much change. “You could see that Dublin had a gameplan,” he said on ‘The Sunday Game’. “When you look at Galway, I’m not too sure. I couldn’t see how they were playing…there was no real structure as such.”

Shefflin’s aura and status preceded him through the dressing-room door, but inter-county environments are unforgiving places and Shefflin still needed to prove that he could do a job at the highest level, that he could bring a certain level of sophistication and tactical acumen that Galway have lacked.

Much of what is deemed to be cutting edge in the modern game is treated with suspicion in Kilkenny. Shefflin never really hid that scepticism as a pundit, both in print and TV, but he also knew that he needed to find a balance between core principles and modern demands.

After three years, the team hasn’t been shaped the way it should have been under Shefflin. He inherited the oldest squad in the championship but Shefflin continued to show faith in the older brigade when many in the county favoured a rebuild.

The biggest criticism of Galway during Shefflin’s three years is their lack of identity as a team, and their inability to connect with their supporters. The Galway hurling public are notoriously fickle but they have largely turned their backs on this side. They have always had an issue with going to Pearse Stadium, and it’s traffic problems, but a paltry crowd of 8,000 for Galway’s biggest game of the season summed up where the Shefflin project now lies.

The main challenge for Shefflin going west was to transform Galway into a team in his image. When Shefflin looks at Galway now though, what he sees is unrecognisable. He was manager of a team that seemed to contain nothing of him.

What must Shefflin have been weighing up over the last few days? You can’t imagine.