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Christy O'Connor: Kilkenny legend King Henry Shefflin trying to mould Galway in his image

Kilkenny's Cillian Buckley celebrates his goal at the end of the Leinster SHC Final win over Galway. Pic Philip Walsh
Kilkenny's Cillian Buckley celebrates his goal at the end of the Leinster SHC Final win over Galway. Pic Philip Walsh Kilkenny's Cillian Buckley celebrates his goal at the end of the Leinster SHC Final win over Galway. Pic Philip Walsh

The second the final whistle blew in Nowlan Park on the afternoon that Galway played Kilkenny in the Leinster round robin in late April, Henry Shefflin sprinted towards the referee Johnny Murphy to give him a piece of his mind about some of his refereeing decisions.

Shefflin was on home soil but he had no intention of keeping his head down and just being happy that Galway had just got out of jail with a draw. When Kilkenny led by two points with three minutes of additional time still to play, they eked out four scoring chances to Galway's two. Kilkenny missed all four, while Galway nailed their two chances, with Declan McLoughlin levelling the game with the last play.

Shefflin's immediate reaction was still to have a go at the referee. Getting a result on the road in Kilkenny was totally irrelevant to him in that moment. So was any potential negative reaction from the home crowd in that setting, many of whom still hold it against Shefflin for managing Galway, which was always going to mean coming up against Kilkenny.

His reaction said everything about Shefflin's mindset, and how much he wants to win. So how sick and disgusted must he have been when Galway had Kilkenny by the throat in the dying seconds of the Leinster final but they still coughed up the ball on multiple occasions, which led to Cillian Buckley's match-winning goal with the last play?

When Shefflin went to Galway, he surely accepted that managing a team renowned for serial inconsistency was never going to be similar to a playing career defined by the absolute consistency of the greatest team in hurling history. Acceptance of that reality though, can't be any easier for a player who never knew anything other than the opposite of what his maiden inter-county management job has delivered.

It is all the more frustrating again considering how much personal investment the job has required of Shefflin. Despite the heavy toll and long distance haul, Shefflin often turns up just for gym sessions. On some weeks, he could clock up 1600 kilometres. His great friend and Galway head coach Richie O'Neill does a lot of the driving, but that still doesn't dull the ache of the near six-hour round cross-country trip.

The workload of an inter-county manager now has never been higher or more intense but Shefflin would never use the road or the relentless grind as an excuse to reduce it. If anything, his application with Galway has just reaffirmed why he was the most decorated, successful and one of the greatest GAA players of all time. No stone is left unturned.

And yet, Galway have often looked like they are running to a standstill under Shefflin. When was the last time they delivered an impressive, consistent performance for 70 minutes against a top side under him? That question could even be asked of Galway in the league. It hasn't really happened.

Galway's best championship performance was against Kilkenny in the 2022 round robin. They did run Limerick to three points in last year's All-Ireland semi-final but, even though Limerick were not operating at the level they can that afternoon, they still never looked like losing the game. Galway did beat Limerick in the league in February 2022 but Limerick weren't long back training, they had Gearóid Hegarty sent off and they ran out of gas in the last quarter.

After that, Galway's graph has oscillated like a Big Dipper ride at an adventure park. Extremely poor in last year's Leinster final, Cork let them off the hook in the All-Ireland quarter-final when missing a bag of goals and conceding two soft goals, a game in which Galway scraped over the line by one point.

Their best performance in this year's league was against a disinterested Clare in March but, even at that, Galway trailed by 0-8 to 0-1 after just 15 minutes. When they drew with Dublin in their final round robin game in May, Dublin led by 12 points at one stage early in the second half. The breeze did help Galway reel Dublin in but, even when Galway went ahead twice in additional time, they still couldn't hold on for the win.

The biggest challenge for Shefflin was to try and transform Galway into a team in his image. Shefflin has improved the team ethic and squad spirit but the biggest criticism of Galway under Shefflin is that they are a team without an identity.

The inconsistency which crippled Galway for years, but which Micheál Donoghue changed between 2016 and 2018 (they were poor in 2019 but they still only lost one championship game that summer), returned under Shane O'Neill between 2020-'21. Shefflin hasn't been able to eradicate it, which manifested itself again in the Leinster final. Galway did turn the game on its head in the second half. But they were eight points down with 20 minutes remaining.

Chasing down big leads against Kilkenny (twice) and Dublin is a reflection of good character, but there is still too much individual stuff going on.

"Looking at the Leinster Final, I saw players not tracking their men, or not sensing the danger and picking up somebody else's man," wrote Joe Canning his 'Irish Times' column. "There weren't hunting in threes and fours, like a team should be if everybody was on the same page and knew what they were doing."

Canning also questioned their style of play after the Dublin game. "I could see no pattern to their attacking play," he wrote. "If I had been playing on the inside line that day, I wouldn't have known when to make my runs. I wouldn't have known what kind of ball was coming in, or if it was going to come in. There were too many pot-shots for scores from out the field. Too many lads were playing like individuals."

So what is Galway's identity under Shefflin? Are they the realistic All-Ireland contenders that the manager thinks they are? An All All-Ireland quarter-final against Tipperary will tell a great deal. And it will also tell a lot more about where Shefflin and Galway go next.