On February 20th, it was announced that Eamon O’Shea was returning to Liam Sheedy’s management team for the Tipperary hurlers. The news drew respectful notices on the unique coaching atmosphere the pair had created during their original term on the sideline with Tipp. But in general the reaction was muted because in February the Premier hurlers still seemed caught in the fugue state through which they had drifted in 2018.
It was tempting to believe that time had passed on a deeply gifted if erratic generation of players. Nothing much was happening for them in the league: an early win against Clare had given way to a dismaying 1-21 to 1-14 defeat against All-Ireland champions Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds.
That loss could be reasoned out because John Kiely’s All-Ireland champions seemed to be playing on a higher register. But a one-point loss down in Wexford Park – when Tipperary again posted just 1-14 – gave the Tipperary public further room for pessimism. More troublingly, the team lost again by a point on February 24th to that black and amber team in Semple Stadium.
Former Tipperary midfielder James Woodlock has emerged as one of the sharpest hurling analysts on the scene, and on Extra Time he told Ronan Quirke of his concerns after watching his county lose to Kilkenny.
“I said it on Friday that I felt that it was a game we had to put down a marker and had to come out all guns blazing. We never brought the fight or the intensity. We played the game on Kilkenny’s terms for long periods. We never brought the work ethic to the game, and we handed them the initiative with frees.
"We had our forward line on the field. We were non-functioning at midfield, and some of our backs were in real trouble. The game only changed and began to swing in our favour when Ronan Maher came back to the half back line because we stopped the ball going through. But other than that we were in trouble. A lot of those Kilkenny players were unknown and trying to make their name, and did better than some or our experienced players."
It was a succinct summary of the problems that seemed to be facing Sheedy and Tipperary right then: how to get an individually brilliant set of forwards working in synchronicity and how to assemble a defence that was fighting against the perception of being leaky.
Woodlock was one of the hurlers who had played under the previous Sheedy/O’Shea ticket. He has said of Sheedy: “I’ve never seen a man to do what he did – 36 players on the panel and the 36 couldn’t hurl any better.”
Of O’Shea, he remarked: “He’s the best trainer in the country.”
In the days after the Kilkenny game the best that could be said for Tipperary was that there was still time to get their house in order. Suffice to say: they have done.
When former midfielder Shane McGrath heard last September that Sheedy had agreed to take charge of Tipperary after an eight-year absence he immediately felt that the squad would respond.
His view complements Woodlock’s assertion that Sheedy has this effortless gift for inclusion which generates the near-impossible: harmony throughout the panel.
“I am close to him – you know in sport it’s easier to be close to the manager that is picking you. And I was lucky enough to always be involved when Liam was there. And I just knew as soon as he came in he would get the best out of everybody. By everybody I mean he keeps the guys who are 19 to 34 happy.
“And how will he keep them happy? He will make everyone feel as important as the guy who is man of the match. The guy who doesn’t get the jersey on match day: he is made to feel just as much a part of it. And that is a very hard thing to do.
“When you have ‘A’ versus ‘B’ or Possible versus Probable games, everyone feels they have a chance. While the 15 mightn’t change you can see with Tipp – and not everyone notices this – but the 26 is changing every single week.
“And that is because everyone is driven by thinking ‘yeah, I have a chance at this’. Who are the masters at this? Kilkenny. They always had the same 13 or 14 but maybe one guy coming in or two or three guys coming into the 26.”
A quick appraisal of Tipperary on the eve of this year’s Munster final confirms their startling acceleration in form since the watery weeks of the mid-league. As Jackie Tyrrell noted in Friday’s Irish Times, this generation of Tipp hurlers are competing against their legacy now. “These lads have won two All-Irelands when they should have had at least four,” he stated flatly.
Through Munster they’ve hurled as though possessed by that very realisation. They have scored 8-101 through this Munster Championship in posting four wins from four. But it’s the rapacious hunger and honesty of effort that has made Tipp supporters sit up and become excited again.
One of the drawbacks of having a stable of technically superb hurlers is that they can over-rely on their quality to see them through. In this campaign work rate has been the key characteristic. The obvious assumption is that the influence of the Sheedy/O’Shea dynamic has begun to flow through the squad. It’s precisely because they are such different people that the pairing are so intriguing.
“If you were climbing Everest in the morning Liam would get you there, and he would have everything organised to a tee, and he would be driven to get you there,” McGrath says. “But while you were climbing to the top, Eamon would be like ‘let’s look over here and look at all this magic here or let’s move around differently or enjoy this over here’.
“That is why they work so brilliantly. Eamon just comes up with things out of the blue and makes you think about the game differently. And he wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – like if Eamon went in to train a club team together and they had no idea who he was, they would say ‘this lad is off the wall’.
“So Liam is so professional and organised, and knows what he is doing three steps in advance.
“And Eamon comes in then and throws a bit of freedom and movement into it. That is why they blend so well. There is method to the madness, and that is what I love about the man.”
Do their best
After that league defeat to Kilkenny, Tipperary headed off on a training week in Spain, and then came back and posted 1-24 against Cork. Afterwards Sheedy described his charges as “a credit”.
“It is a pleasure for me to try and facilitate these lads. They do want to do their best every time that they go out.”
That has been the message from Sheedy week in and week out. The emphasis was always on effort rather than final score. After squeezing into the league quarter-finals they promptly went and lost it at home to Dublin, striking 18 wides in the process. So they exited the league as a bit of a mystery. The easy summary was of a cast of talented hurlers who for some reason made for a vulnerable collective.
But the way that they have attacked this year’s championship has obliterated that notion. McGrath points out that both Sheedy and O’Shea would have seen the “savage potential” in this group even through the general disenchantment of last year.
"Another thing, while Eamon is brilliant, Tommy Dunne and Darragh Egan are absolutely fantastic too. I watch these guys closely, and I see them on match day, and they are seeing things in games and getting messages in, and they are all just working really well together as a management team.
“Tommy, in my opinion, is a fantastic coach. He did great work with Dublin. And Darragh is young, like. He knows what way the younger hurlers are thinking. He knows what way certain guys are striking the ball or what their movement is because he is not so long out of intercounty hurling himself.
“So there is a great dynamic and then Liam is at the helm of that and he will take it all on board and use what he feels is important.”
It all leads to the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday for a Munster final that feels like a true crossing point for both counties: Limerick, the reigning All-Ireland champions hosting Tipperary, the ascendancy county rising again.
The return of Brendan Maher after almost a year out of the game further reinforced the sense of things coming together. Sheedy praised the Borrisoleigh man as "the ultimate leader".
The backdrop of the Tipp-Limerick round-robin game a fortnight ago, with the verdict that it was a shadow game, and the dismaying cruciate injury suffered by Patrick Maher, the on-field conscience of this Tipp squad, give Sunday's occasion a fascinating context.
McGrath will be doing sideline commentary for RTÉ, and happily admits he can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
"The big thing for me with Tipp getting over the line is if Cathal Barrett plays. If he plays I think they have a massive chance. The reason being that you are going to have 15 to 18 guys between the two 45s. You're going to have three v three on one side, and if one of those three is Cathal Barrett for us then, yeah, we have a massive chance. If he is not we are going to be in a bit of bother."
But to feel as if they are in with a massive chance, in the partisan cauldron on Limerick’s Ennis Road, is a good place for Tipp to be in these muggy days of late June.
Because if they are like this now then what is the forecast for mid-August?