Eamon O’Shea interview: ‘I won’t look at my team, knowing the work they do, and say that they have failed’

Tipperary manager believes essence of life is to ‘keep on and be better’ – it’s an attitude he brings to hurling too

Eamon O’Shea acquired the reputation of being an innovative  hurling coach and when Liam Sheedy invited him in to join the Tipperary set up, the players instantly responded to  his training methods. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Eamon O’Shea acquired the reputation of being an innovative hurling coach and when Liam Sheedy invited him in to join the Tipperary set up, the players instantly responded to his training methods. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

“I never retired! I didn’t retire. Babs didn’t pick me,” Eamon O’Shea clarifies with a laugh, lightly poking fun at his last days as the skilful, unorthodox MacDonagh’s forward belonging to the small army of Premier hurlers who came and went in Tipperary’s lost decade.

Although what, exactly, was lost? In retrospect, Tipp’s period of incarceration in Munster (1971-’87) was captured by Richie Stakelum’s screaming declaration from the steps of Fitzgerald stadium – “The famine is over”– and then neatly repackaged as a trauma endured by the entire county.

But as far as Eamon O’Shea is concerned, it was never that simple and never just about that.

He screws up his eyes and looks out the cafe window at the battalion of power-walkers sucking down the best of an icy Saturday on Salthill promenade. It is easy to be anonymous as an ex-hurler in Galway city, easy to remain incognito even when you are manager of a hurling team who fell on the side of heartbreak after last September’s transcendent All-Ireland final against Kilkenny.

O’Shea has dropped his son to hurling training and looks on in amusement at the scenes on the promenade as he tries to put order on an obsession that has never made full sense in chronological time to him.

“I never chose hurling. It chose me, and many others like me”, was the opening of a revelatory piece he wrote for RTÉ Radio’s Sunday Miscellany, an open-hearted explanation of how the game framed and shaped him in late 1960s Cloughjordan.

O’Shea balances his role as Tipperary manager with an immersive career as a professor in economics in NUIG. He doesn’t much care for the pyrotechnics on Wall Street or the lunacy of the housing market and was never one of the “soft-landing” brigade. His research and publishing revolves around ageing in Irish society and, specifically, on how we deal with dementia sufferers.

So his mind and energy and time are concentrated on strikingly different human experiences: young athletes, nationally known and in the prime of their lives, and the generation whose grasp on memory and the familiar is disappearing. If those groups share any commonality for O’Shea, it is that they should be treated carefully and with respect. And if he is certain of anything, it is that the hurling life is brief.

O’Shea scored 1-1 in the All-Ireland minor final for Tipp’ in 1976 and then played senior for a full decade, fading off the scene the season before their revival under Babs Keating. It was cruel timing but O’Shea is wickedly unsentimental about his end days with Tipperary.

“I knew,” he says with a low laugh, “I wasn’t playing well. You just know. I was here and in England for a while and . . . no, I knew. No. No. But it was all really enjoyable at the same time. I have good memories of Tipperary hurling.”

It may have helped that he was playing on strong UCD teams at the time and for the Kilruane MacDonagh’s team coached by Len Gaynor. There are certain people that O’Shea references almost unconsciously when he talks about his hurling influences and Gaynor is one of those.

“Len would have known . . . I wouldn’t have been an aggressive player and they gave me a bit of poetic licence. Lads would have indulged me a bit and my job was to make sure that indulgence paid off and the ball was . . . that I would do what I had to do. It was a responsibility. You had to finish chances. It wasn’t free.

“Those guys wouldn’t give you anything for free. So it was a really good club and they would have looked after ye on the pitch and made sure that you were given the space to do what you wanted to do. But Len was just so passionate that I still carry the responsibility of that with me.”

And that is the point. O’Shea, almost by accident, has become one of the select few to manage the Tipperary senior hurling team. The arc of history, with the stunning sweep of success in the 1960s, when Tipp players seemed indomitable (“You wouldn’t have seen them often. They were in your head. So they were always bigger”), followed by the sudden fall from grace.

The stop-start glories since coupled with Kilkenny’s supreme reign have made the Tipperary hurling job arguably the most demanding in Irish sport.

Last spring, after a faltering start in the league, the scrutiny on Tipp – and on O’Shea – was relentless. They avoided relegation on score difference against Dublin, took a deep breath and went on to lose a classic league final to the always-there black and amber.

The always-there Brian Cody. Tipp have contested the All-Ireland finals of 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’14 against Kilkenny, winning the 2010 version. Because they are the most consistent challengers, they are exposed to constant comparison and criticism.

Last autumn was special. The drawn match, in particular, reached such a rare note of splendour that the bitter-flavoured rivalry felt by both crowds seemed to dissipate. All were lost in appreciation of what they were witnessing.

When John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer sent his 94-metre free floating towards the Canal End, O’Shea came as close to any manager has done to winning an All-Ireland. While that ball travelled, there was not a thing any Kilkenny man could do to stop it.

“No, no absolutely not,” O’Shea says quickly about allowing the notion of winning it to slip into his head for those seconds. “You are just waiting. To see what happens. So no. I would say no.”

After Kilkenny had wrested control and won the replay, O’Shea spoke vividly about his players: about their honesty and pride and what they had contributed to the championship. He said that winning was not the only thing. “It’s easy to say that when you lose,” he laughs now, but concedes he would say much the same in victory.

“Listen, I want to win as well. I think the evidence is there that Kilkenny have a regime that manages to win games, as well as playing really brilliant hurling. They have class players to win those games. In terms of Tipperary, we are trying to find a way to get the wins to reflect what we do on the training pitch. But we are not quite there.

“I can talk about performance but if you look at the players, the players want to win. It is if you don’t win – and Kilkenny have been gracious the odd time we do beat them – but if we don’t win, I am not going to say that it was a failure. Other people will and other people see it as a failure and they are absolutely entitled to.

“But I won’t look at my team, knowing the work they do, and say that they have failed. We don’t have any baggage because of where we are. You do have to recognise the quality of the competitor you are facing. I do think Kilkenny are up there in terms of world teams in the environment they have created. That is down to Brian and the structure they have. And Tipp, we have been there since 2008 and have been very, very close and you just keep going. That is what you do.”

O’Shea never really sought management: he had acquired the reputation of being an innovative and instinctive hurling coach to whom players instantly responded when Liam Sheedy invited him in. Lar Corbett described his early impressions of O’Shea in his autobiography. He was an enigma; few of the players knew anything about him.

His drills were a joy, his approach completely new and his emphasis on movement liberating for instinctive players: Corbett credits O’Shea with properly teaching him the game at the age of 27. “My mind was blown every time I spoke with him,” he wrote.

When Sheedy stepped down due to work commitments, O’Shea stayed, following earnest persuasions of the players. He shrugs when asked how he finds the sheer scale of September finals.

“Ah, it doesn’t bother me. It’s fine. Same way . . . it’s a different thing but I love managing under-12 teams too. I love that. Little fellas coming up to you and demanding: ‘Put me on. Why aren’t you putting me on?’ It is all part of the same thing. The hurling final . . . it gets a lot of attention but it is just two hurling teams going at it.”

He was very young when he began to understand that as well as being a game, hurling was a language through which people communicated. He doesn’t want to depict Cloughjordan as some kind of lost idyll. There were outside influences – he was an avid Radio Luxembourg and BBC listener and was among the generation of school kids who swooned when Charlie George, the Marc Bolan of football, completed a league/FA Cup double for Arsenal with an outrageous goal in Wembley in May of ’71.

But life was localised and hurling was escapism: it was the safe ground and common interest. He began to understand how the game neutralised backgrounds: “Some of us were less well off than others so there was a spectrum. I was aware of that but never felt disadvantaged even though I might have been in comparison to other kids. The GAA straddles that hierarchy.”

When he studied in Dublin, he lived in Kimmage and hurled in Crumlin and fell under the influence of Jimmy Boggan. “Jimmy was way ahead of his time in terms of commitment to skill and player welfare. He was interested in player welfare more than anyone I knew. Just keeping an eye out, making sure fellas were okay.”

He met his wife during his Crumlin years and speaks fondly of the club, nimbly ducking the question when asked about the atmosphere when his team met the clubs from the fancy suburbs.

“Ah sure, I didn’t understand it. I was from the country. I just hurled away. And we were . . . not great, to be honest. That didn’t matter. You could leave your bike behind the goalposts and go training. It was great.”

He was studying all the time, in Dublin and in Leicester and after Babs declined to pick him in 1987, he didn’t feel any great void and genuinely rejoiced when the county won that summer’s Munster championship to end the so-called famine of which he had lived through.

Tipp had several terrific players whose annual championships lasted for one match - he mentions Pat Moloughney and Francis Loughnane and Michael Doyle and Tommy Butler and Jim Kehoe, now in San Francisco - as players trapped by the knockout system.

“But then, it didn’t fully feel like that. You were conscious that you weren’t making the breakthrough. When I look back now, when I was on the Tipp team, if I knew then what I know now I would do things very differently to be a better player. I mean, I was never a top player. But I would try to influence others around me. You don’t have that insight when you are young.”

He hopes he has that now – although the under-12 kids he has coached are sharp enough to leave him doubting. His weeks go by in a flash and he is good at compartmentalising his life. His colleagues in college are aware that he has this other existence as a GAA figure of note.

“No, no” he chuckles when asked if they speak about it often on campus and that is fine too: he has many friends with zero interest in the GAA and knows them to be perfectly fulfilled.

He has published a lot of material about dementia and what it takes to implement a caring society. In a study he took part in on rural ageing, he encountered the figures who were everywhere in his childhood: those bachelors who had lived a life devoted to hurling. Not famous players or figures but the background faces to whom the game means everything. One of his key interests now concerns if and how Irish towns and villages make time for people with dementia and for its ageing citizens, who can be easily marginalised and forgotten.

“One of the things we don’t think enough about, publicly, is the set of values or principles that are worth pursuing simply because we haven’t had to think about them for centuries because they were given to us. We were told: this is what you must do. But now we may need to reframe them in terms of work pressures and rural communities where two people are going out to work, they come back at night, they are tired and they don’t have an opportunity to engage. It is not easy.”

On a different level, he feels a duty of care to the hurlers, feted stars most of them, whom he trains in Thurles on these winter nights. If there is one thing he wants them to understand, it is how quickly all of this passes.

“That life is great now but it is necessary for them to be aware that the career is really short and the decisions they make now may have repercussions in 10, 20 years down the road that they haven’t really thought about.”

And it can be difficult, when you are committed to something as intense and exhilarating as playing hurling at the highest level, to focus on the more mundane stuff or to fully absorb the fact that for even the very brightest and best, those September days come along only a handful of times. That is why they are magical. When he met Brian Cody at the All-Stars in November, that was something they touched on in conversation. O’Shea told the Kilkenny man that he felt the achievement, for Kilkenny, lay in the constant level at which they play.

“That’s the hallmark of a brilliant team environment. The team changes. Names come and go. And I would say to him that is the essence of what he has created. That environment. People talk about a constant All Blacks mentality. But when you look at Kilkenny as a top team and environment, you would have to say that they are among the best in sport.”

Don’t think that implies that the stripy men haunt his dreams. He frowns when asked if he hurled against Cody in league days. “I don’t remember. Might have. I don’t know.”

And he is against the idea that other hurling counties need to “be like” Kilkenny. Every county should do its own thing, he feels. That self-expression and discovery is part of the point of hurling. He is suspicious, too, of the flightier talk about what hurling is and about claims made on its behalf.

“You have to be careful not to overegg the spirituality of hurling or the cultural dominance of hurling in a sporting arena. If I go down to watch Connacht play rugby, I can get excited about what they are trying to do and the spirit they have and if it is a really good game. You have to see it in its own right. I think hurling is a fantastic game in terms of the elegance of it.

“It resonates in terms of the ability to control a ball and the aggression that goes with it and then the rhythm of it. There is a particular rhythm to hurling which, I think, does suit the Celtic nature. There are so many things the game has in terms of its appeal. The skill levels are huge. But the skill levels are huge if you watch Lionel Messi or Ronaldo. What they do is incredible. Any elite sport . . . so you have to put it in context. Accept hurling for what it is: a fantastic game with a fantastic thrill to it when it is played well. But that is what it is.”

Tipperary are a part of that. Perhaps the anxiety of last spring reflected the mood among Tipperary hurling people rather than the team itself. “We want to win and that creates its own pressure. But I certainly don’t think it weighs us down.” And certainly, on this morning, it doesn’t appear to have taken any toll on Eamon O’Shea. Over Christmas, he sat down and read Michael Foley’s terrific reconstruction of the Croke Park War of Independence atrocity, The Bloodied Field.

As he read about Dan Breen, it struck him that he had known little about this guy after whom the Tipperary championship cup is named. The MacDonagh’s team won that cup four times in his era. He thought about Dan Breen and about Tipp football teams training through the mad climate of that time and of how the echoes travel.

That is what it is about for him. Be under no illusion: O’Shea would love for Tipperary to win the All-Ireland in September and his competitive streak is ferocious. He doesn’t know if they will. That is, they will go out and play, but they also play because it is an inheritance. He was at the funeral recently of Tommy Barrett, one of those figures for whom the word ‘stalwart’ was invented: a hurler turned administrator and the longest serving secretary in Tipperary GAA history. Not famous, exactly, but irreplaceable.

“And going to that funeral and meeting people and going through the decades and all of the things you talk about and the fallow periods and winning years . . . sometimes you think it is just keeping on,” O’Shea says.

“Just keep on. Just keep it going and make it a bit better. There are so many people who never see limelight, who are just trying to make things a bit better. That, to me, is the essence. You talk about Tipperary and the All-Ireland and all that . . . when I drive down through Tipp to training in the evenings . . . when I drive through the towns . . . the ghosts are in your head all the time. “You realise what is going on. The team is the team now. The team will change. I will change. I will be gone. Next year. I will be gone. And to me, you can almost sense it. You know, that the engagement in the game is still there. There is an essence to the game. That is what you represent: the voices that are gone and have yet to come.”

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