Eamon O’Shea’s service to Tipperary cause merits recognition

Economics professor’s novel ideas stretched the tactical boundaries of the game

In this week of all weeks, the mind wanders to what Eamon O’Shea is doing. Could be anything, really. Most likely, he has his nose deep in some new piece of research that will make up the hard yards of some piece of public policy down the line.

Since departing the intercounty hurling scene last August, Professor O’Shea has been published twice in peer reviewed journals – once in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and once in Ageing Resource Communities: New Frontiers Of Rural Population Change, Community Development and Volunteerism.

O’Shea was always the most interesting man in the room.

Half the time you weren’t entirely sure whether he really wanted to be there or if it was more that being Tipperary manager was just a thread he had pulled on out of curiosity one day and he was following it the end because he got a kick out of discovering new things. At a press day before the 2014 All-Ireland final, he teased out a question about separating the enjoyment of the experience of a big game from the result.

“I think that’s an interesting question, from the point of view of being involved in voluntary activity. Maybe if I was professional it would be more difficult for me. But the enjoyment of the game for me is paramount. I understand that as manager I’m expected to compete and win. But I also understand that when you go to a game against Kilkenny, in an All-Ireland final or down in Nowlan Park for the qualifier [in 2013], it’s a special hurling occasion. “And you can enjoy that at some level at some stage afterwards. You don’t enjoy the result, you’re devastated. But you can say, ‘That was a tremendous experience,’ and say, ‘To be part of something like this, not personally but for the team and the tradition, is something extraordinary.’

“Where we’ve been to has been a good experience for everybody at the end of this. The result will determine how you’re remembered in a sense but I don’t care, really. I know what has happened here. I know I’ve worked with a really good group. That’s what matters to me.”

Reading that back two years later, it isn’t the thoughtfulness of the response that catches the eye. It’s more that such a question wasn’t laughed out of the room.

Nobody asks Brian Cody if he can separate his enjoyment of a game from the result. Maybe we should. Maybe we'd be surprised at the answer. That seems unlikely, though.

O’Shea was a different sort of character, one that you never quite felt the rest of the hurling world really took to. For such a mercurial sport, the innate suspicion of hurling folk towards anything remotely tippy-tappy or airy-fairy is strong indeed. O’Shea’s teams had a bad habit of losing tight games in a distinct manner – outhorsed and outfought by teams that usually weren’t as talented as them.

A classic of the genre was against Limerick in the 2014 Munster Championship. Leading by a goal in the 68th minute, Tipp were beaten by two points come the final whistle. Beside me in the New Stand press box, a Grand Old Hurling Man stood up and pronounced gleefully: “Sure that’s the nutty professor for you.”

Derek McGrath is getting a bit of that these days. There’s a strain of anti-intellectualism in the game that pooh-poohs anything beyond existing orthodoxies and it does hurling no credit. It’s the most virulent type of hurling snobbery – not only is our sport better than yours, this one way of playing it is better than anything new that comes along. Even if it is, there’s nothing attractive in being dogmatic about it.

Mick Ryan has changed Tipperary's style over the past 12 months, from the midfield up especially. They still have sparkling hurlers but they are undeniably more rugged now, more lustful for the battle. They look more suited to what Kilkenny will bring to the final, as former star Eoin Kelly summed up in these pages a few weeks back.

“I would say Mick was tired of looking at six Noel McGraths in his forward line,” said Kelly.

“That’s probably the best way to put it. Tipp had a forward line where there was skill in abundance, a load of players who’d put the ball in your eye if you asked them to. But there was nobody there who’d kill a fella for you.”

Killing a fella wasn’t Eamon O’Shea’s way, it’s true. His thinking on it would be that a fella didn’t need to be killed when he could be got around or dragged into an area he didn’t want to be. Better to bamboozle him, twist him and turn him to distraction. No animals were harmed in the making of his Tipperary teams. As we all knew he would, O’Shea melted back into civilian life with barely a backward glance. Save for an interview in the Irish Examiner ahead of his keynote speech at the GAA’s annual coaching conference last January, he has scarcely been heard from. No punditing on TV, no newspaper columns, none of that stuff. Not his bag.

You’d hope that he gets his due, though. If Tipp win on Sunday and they bridge the gap to 2010, it will be Mick Ryan’s triumph, no question. But a little of it will be O’Shea’s too.

Even the snobs would surely grant him that.