For Eamon O’Shea winning an All-Ireland is only part of it
‘I love to see players going out and having self-expression. I love seeing them find ways to create’
Tipperary’s Eamon O’Shea: “We can only be ourselves. Some days that answer doesn’t work, as we have shown. But we still want to play the way we play. That’s important.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
On Monday morning, as the lazy glow and fuzz of the whole thing settled around the Tipperary camp, Eamon O’Shea got up and out of the Burlington and went for a stroll. With his wife and son alongside, he headed for Baggot Street. There was some August heat in the morning, apt for the day, hip to the mood. Soon enough they found themselves sitting by the canal with an ice-cream, watching the city go about itself.
“This is good,” O’Shea thought. “This is nice.”
And it was enough. More than enough. He didn’t go to Thurles for the celebrations, and instead was back in Galway in the late afternoon.
On Tuesday morning he went to work in NUIG, gathering his bits about him for the new semester. By Wednesday night the Salthill-Knocknacarra minors were saving their season with a crucial win over St Thomas’s in Athenry, and O’Shea was there, immersed again.
None of this is to say he is unmoved by what happened last Sunday or in any way aloof to it all. The opposite is true, profoundly so. All week O’Shea has been swaddled in a deep, downy quilt of satisfaction. Not at anything he did himself, just really at the whole experience. Around this time 12 years ago John Sheedy rang him up, asking would he meet his brother Liam for a chat. Look what happened.
Sunday was the latest stop along that road, and it meant everything to him. Obviously winning is better than losing, but the result was only part of it. Mostly it meant everything to him because of the sprawling tangle of people he shared it with, those in the set-up and those beyond.
What you did
“I met fellas afterwards and on Sunday night, and I was saying, ‘you weren’t there with us today but I know what you did. I know when you came in that you believed in what we were doing.’ Some of them players, some of them mentors, some of them people who were just involved in one way or the other over the past 10-12 years.
“This squad achieved something that we thought was important for those players and, as Liam has referenced, they’ve marked their contribution to the game over the past decade with it. But the overall satisfaction really was from the fact that this was something that so many people contributed to over so many years. They came in, and they believed. Some people left and came back or just left altogether. But this was still their achievement.
“It’s like Mick [Ryan] winning the All-Ireland in 2016. I met Mick on Sunday night, and it was great. It just seemed natural to me that he had continued something from when I was there. And now Liam has come back and continued what Mick had done. And it can’t continue forever, we know that.”
Here he is, then. Hurling’s most over-qualified water boy. Or, as he would have it, the worst one in the game.
“I was a really terrible Maor Uisce. Half the time I went out on to the pitch and forgot the bottle altogether. You get caught up in the flow of the game and you’d be going out to talk to fellas and they’d be going, ‘have you no water with you?’ I was only getting the hang of it by the final.”
After he finished up as Tipp manager in 2015, Eamon O’Shea was never one of those guys who was gearing up for a second life on The Sunday Game. There was no chance we would be reading him in a weekly hurling column or hearing him on a GAA podcast. If Liam Sheedy hadn’t taken the plunge for a second time, chances are we’d never have heard from him again.
“We talked when he got the job,” O’Shea says. “We’ve always talked. I would have talked to him a fair bit when I was doing it, even though he was on television or whatever. So we talked for a while. I felt he was fine without me. He had Tommy [Dunne] and Darragh [Egan]and he didn’t need me.
“But after a while we were talking that much that we said we may as we meet at training and talk there. There was a training trip to Spain in March for three or four days and I went on that and it went on from there.
“I still don’t know what I actually did in there. I was supporting Tommy and Darragh in what they did and we were all supporting Liam. My job was sort of to go around saying, ‘yeah, we are spot on here.’ Or ‘that’s a small bit off, what can we do to make it better?’ Making sure the pieces came together.
“The three of them are great people. I had my go and I had no regrets. I mean that honestly. I was in the stand in 2016 when we won and I was elated. I was an emotional wreck. I really felt it would happen. When you finish, you miss the adrenaline – but only for a while.
“I had been the manager, I had been the coach. So I was what? Adviser? I just did whatever had to be done. I didn’t need to be called anything, I didn’t need to be listed in the programme. Maor Uisce meant I could be close to Liam and Tommy during a game.
“But I really wouldn’t want to over-egg it, you know? If you came to training and watched me for a night, you’d go away wondering what I did or if I did anything. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate it.”
Yet you only need to listen to him talk about coaching and soon enough he’s telling you without telling you. Only for Hawk-Eye nixing Bubbles O’Dwyer’s last-gasp free, O’Shea would most likely have the 2014 All-Ireland on his CV. Galway needed an injury-time point to breast the tape ahead of them in the following year’s semi-final. A point here and a point there and the record books would say something else. But it wouldn’t have changed what he got out of hurling or what it means to him.
Pain of losing
“I was pained when we lost in 2014 and 2015. I had the pain of losing. And I understand that it’s a results business. I get that. But what I love is to see players going out and having self-expression. I love seeing them find ways to create.
“When I think of Offaly – and I saw those guys out there on Sunday as the jubilee team – when I think of them, I honestly couldn’t tell you how many All-Irelands they won or when they won them. I know it’s very important to Offaly people but I can’t remember when they won or who they beat or anything. But I still have John Troy in my head. I still have Brian Whelahan in my head. Johnny Pilkington in my head.
“So when I’m in the middle of a training session, even though I’m not from Offaly, I have the picture in my head of the things those guys did. The movement, the strike, all that stuff. And I try to apply that and get it across to players. That’s what I carry around with me. I don’t carry wins and losses or who won the All-Ireland or who was beaten in the final.
“Even bring it to modern day and I think of Patrick Horgan. I can’t tell you off the top of my head whether Cork won this match or that match. But I can tell you what I feel watching Patrick Horgan hurling, and how that informs what I try to get across.”
Years ago, when the kids were small, the O’Shea family holidayed in Auxerre in France. The local football club had a legendary coach in Guy Roux, who managed them on and off for the guts of half a century. In the mornings O’Shea would go down and watch them training, and he noticed that Roux started off each day without a ball, getting the players practising their movement. The rhythm, the ballet, the flow of it stayed with him. Last Sunday, he saw it again. Same same but different.
“There was a point scored where Noel McGrath was heading towards the left sideline and he turned back on to his right side and played a long diagonal ball over to the far sideline where Bubbles had made a run across the pitch.
“Now, I love the way people sometimes talk about Bubbles as if he kind of wanders around the place only half bothering when it suits him. Bubbles made a 35 to 40 metre run to be in a position to get that ball and create that angle for Noel to play it. And then once he got it he scored a point that only he can score.
“That’s what I mean by satisfaction. The work involved in that is something that as a coach you can provide the canvas for but that’s all you can do. You need people with the genius and skills of Noel and Bubbles to do it. They have that skill in their hands. All we can do is work on their mind and basically tell them ‘go on, do it. Go on, do it.’ In a sense, that’s what the coaching framework should allow in my view. ‘Go on, do it. Go on, do it.’
“It’s making sure they know they have the imprimatur to do it. And when that happens, that’s very satisfying for the whole group. Not just the coaches or the manager. The players actually think, ‘yeah, we like this, this is what we do.’
“I smile sometimes when commentators say, ‘Tipp have the hurlers and if they only got a little bit tougher...’ But actually, you have to work very hard to be a hurler as well. If you think we sit back on a Tuesday or Thursday night and say, ‘sure look, we’ll just hurl away here.’ No, we have to work very hard at that. This doesn’t come easy.”
The summer was long and rocky at times. They came out of the Munster final knowing that the effort they’d put into the first four games had cost them. O’Shea still felt they had it in them to turn it around, and he felt the players knew as much themselves. But it wasn’t until a time of real crisis against Wexford that they showed who they were.
“That’s the level of maturity they have,” he says. “When Wexford were getting on top, they remembered what they’re good at – moving the ball, finding space, and so on. And if they did that good things would happen. That’s why you want to be consistent in the message you give. This is what we do. This is our hurling. This is who we are.
“One of the players was saying to me that in the press day ahead of the final one of the journalists asked, ‘How are ye going to out-Kilkenny Kilkenny?’ And I just felt – and, more importantly, the player himself felt – ‘wow, that’s some question. No chance we could try to out-Tipperary them, no?’
“That was just interesting to me. Like, why would we try to out-Kilkenny Kilkenny? Even though that’s what the crowd are after, even though when you’re at a match you often hear them in the stands going, ‘go on, get it forward, drive it, get it out of there.’ Which is exactly what you wouldn’t want to be doing against Kilkenny.
“It’s just interesting to see your own players having that reaction. Like, I can see why the question is the question. But the answer isn’t implicit in the question. The answer is something totally different altogether. We can only be ourselves. Some days that answer doesn’t work, as we have shown. But we still want to play the way we play. That’s important.”
They did. And it was.