Henry Shefflin lauds club ethos of Gaelic Games Player Pathway
By John Harrington
Kilkenny hurling legend, Henry Shefflin, believes one of the major positives of the new Gaelic Games Player Pathway is that it puts the club at the heart of player development.
No-one has achieved more at the elite level than 10-time All-Ireland winner, Shefflin, but in his developmental years as a teenager he didn’t always look like a star in the making.
He struggled initially to make the grade in the famed hurling nursery of St. Kieran's College where he went to secondary school, and it was thanks to the support of his club he was ultimately able to unlock his full potential.
“It’s been well documented that I really struggled when was 14, 15, 16 years of age in St. Kieran’s,” said Shefflin at the launch of the Game Games Player Pathway.
When I reflected, I went back to my club, which is always there, always the default and the centre of what you do.
“That’s why I was so happy with the Pathway because club is core. I went back to my club and the most important match for me was after I had gone back and got the confidence of playing well again that I played in a minor A county final on a Sunday and the following Sunday, an intermediate county final with Ballyhale.
“That was the most pivotal week of my career. We beat James Stephens in the minor final and Brian Cody would have been watching the match. Fast forward a year later and I was at the elite level with Kilkenny but, without the club, I could have been completely lost.
“A lot of this is about resilience as well. If you want to get to that elite level you have to learn the traits of resilience and you learn it in your club because if you're going to be one of the elite players, there is pressure on you to perform for your club.
“That's always what Brian Cody instilled in us all in Kilkenny and I think it's no different all over the country. That's why it's brilliant to see it at the centre of the player pathway.”
The Gaelic Games Player Pathway is the latest of a number of initiatives the GAA has taken to grasp the nettle of elitism.
Another important step in the right direction was the decision by Annual Congress this year to ratify a season split between inter-county and club action which means a club fixture programme will be beholden to a county team's schedule.
“I am very, very positive about it,” says Shefflin of the split season. “My first year involved at a management level, and it was still kind of a mixture of both and we were due to have two club matches in April, and we had obviously spent a lot of time training for that.
“It ended up the weather was bad. I think Kilkenny played the National League late. We got to play one game, so we trained basically for four months - and I know teams previously had trained for six months to play one game - it just didn't make any sense whatsoever.
“I am very happy with it both from a player point of view, an inter-county player’s point of view and a manager's point of view. I think it is the way to go. It really does benefit everyone.
“And look, there are so many benefits to it from an enjoyment point of view as well.
“I think the clubs know exactly what’s coming, and we have often said it, 98 percent of the playing population are club, so I think it’s very important for them that they know exactly what’s taking place.
“And a lot of the club players don’t have to be required going out in January and February in the awful nights and train when they don’t really want to.
“The core of the Association is always about fun and enjoyment and I think that what it should always be about. I think it’s the only way to go.”
After retiring from playing, Shefflin managed his own club Ballyhale Shamrocks to back to back All-Ireland club titles in 2019 and 2020.
He has since stepped down from role and in 2021 will instead try to mastermind promotion to the senior grade for intermediate club Thomastown.
Hailed by many as Brian Cody’s successor in waiting as Kilkenny manager, he insists the prospect of managing at inter-county level is not something he currently has the ambition to do.
“At this moment in time, no,” said Shefflin. “At the time I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get involved with Ballyhale.
“I just felt we needed something different than someone to stand in there and obviously I became involved. Little did I think that we’d go on the run we did for two years and I really needed a break then to spend time with my family.
“Obviously I’ve spent a lot of time with my family over the past year – Deirdre’s nearly sending me back out the door again – and I’ve really embraced that. It was something different for me. That was one of the major benefits for me of Covid. We got to spend quality time with our family and the ones we love most.
“Now I’m getting involved with Thomastown, a local club, and it’s really broadened my experience. I knew the dressingroom and knew the lads in Ballyhale. In one sense that can be difficult but there were a lot of positives for me. I’m going into an entirely different environment in Thomastown where I don’t know many of the players or many of the people around the club, et cetera. I don’t know the culture in there so it’s a learning experience.
“In tandem with that, my family life has become more independent in the sense that the children are getting that bit older. So that’s the journey I’m on and where it takes me, I’m just not quite sure.”