O’Shea’s return to Tipp camp a significant feather in Sheedy’s cap
Empathetic insights of players’ man will add further ballast to Premier coaching ticket
Michael Ryan, Liam Sheedy and Eamon O’Shea lift the Liam McCarthy Cup after the All-Ireland final victory over Kilkenny in 2010 which denied the Cats a famed five-in-a-row. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
In the smouldering aftermath of the 2014 All-Ireland final replay, the first to stand back and assess the significance of what the nation had witnessed was the man who had stood closest to the inferno: the Tipperary manager Eamon O’Shea.
Nobody knew it then but the Kilkenny-Tipp rivalry had reached a crescendo on that September Sunday. Kilkenny had appeared in every single hurling final since 2006 with the conspicuous exception of 2013, when Clare and Cork produced a high-scoring showpiece which people wrongly interpreted as the end of the Noreside-Premier hegemony.
Both Tipp and Kilkenny could happily live with the outcome of that final because the other crowd weren’t in it.
But in 2014, John O’Dwyer’s late match-winning free attempt was cancelled by Hawkeye in the classic drawn game and the replay was a heavyweight tussle for the ages, finishing 2-17 to 2-14 to Brian Cody’s team.
The contests had been magnificent, which made the loss harder to take, but immediately afterwards, O’Shea had the poise to acknowledge the manic competitiveness which Kilkenny brought to those finals – “You can never figure out tactics when you play Kilkenny. They just went ferociously for the ball and I thought they closed down the space we wanted to create”– and to reflect on what his Tipperary players had brought to the summer competition as a whole.
“Today we just couldn’t get the result that we wanted. But my belief is that we left the championship in a better place. It doesn’t come out in the result and it doesn’t show up in the scoreline but in terms of what the team tried to do, I can only say they are a credit to the sport.”
It was cold comfort to the Tipperary hurling public frustrated with the swallowing the bitterest of pills: another final loss to Kilkenny.
But it was in keeping with O’Shea’s holistic, empathetic approach to the sport and his players. That same afternoon, Paddy Stapleton summed up the feeling about O’Shea in the dressing room.
“There’s not a man among us that wouldn’t want Eamon to stay on. He gets us and we get him. He has a fantastic personality, is a great motivator and has a great vision of hurling and they way it should be played in the style of Tipperary. He is in synch with ourselves and we would love it if he could stay on.”
Deceiving and unreadable
Of all the elite hurling counties in this decade, Tipperary’s form line has been the most deceiving and unreadable. When they prevented Kilkenny’s five in a row bid in the 2010 All-Ireland final, there was an ill-disguised expectation that they would rampage their way through subsequent summers.
The departure of Liam Sheedy that autumn because of work commitments, after three years in which he had rehabilitated Tipp’s mental and physical approach to the task, was a big disruption.
Tipperary, now managed by Declan Ryan, lost the 2011 decider to Kilkenny and were then routed 4-24 to 1-15 by the same opposition in the 2012 semi-final.
That defeat all but pushed O’Shea into the managerial role as he set about trying to navigate a path back to the mental and physical state the squad had reached four years on.
As he said, the records will show that Tipp did not win an All-Ireland in his time in charge. What they won’t show is the depth of his influence on the nameless Tuesday and Thursday nights on the training field in Thurles.
Few players offered a more succinct insight than Lar Corbett’s Jeffrey Lebowskian tribute in his 2012 autobiography: “My mind,” Corbett wrote, “was blown every time I spoke to him.” It caught the mood.
O’Shea had been a tall, lightning fast, skilful player for Tipperary in the decade when they were trapped in Munster. He became an economist who went on to specialize in dementia while remaining deeply involved in coaching the game prior to becoming involved in the high-profile role with Tipp, where his originality of approach and thought marked him out as unusual. O’Shea encouraged players to think differently about the game and their role in it. His influence on individual players was pronounced.
It had already been announced that Michael Ryan would take over from O’Shea and Tipp’s 2016 All-Ireland victory, a sauntering 2-29 to 2-20 win over Kilkenny, led to a renewed anticipation that a supremely gifted generation now had the maturation to transform their talent into more All-Irelands.
But the past two seasons have seen them once again drift from that high point. Ryan left; Sheedy returned. The conundrum – how to get the very best out of this bunch – remained.
“What you would have seen in 2010 was a really good mix of intensity – the high work rate that Liam would have brought to the table but also the terrific work that Eamon did as coach,” Michael Ryan said of the original coaching ticket of which he was a part.
When O’Shea stepped down as Tipp manager, it was generally assumed that the championship hurling had seen the last of him and that he’d return to coaching youngsters in his local club in Salthill.
That’s why this announcement will be heartening to the Tipperary hurling public. It won’t happen until the conclusion of the league and O’Shea won’t be taking on an official role of selector. None of that matters.
At a sports conference a few years ago, O’Shea touched upon a theme that has been central to his three decades involved in coaching: identity. Copying the other crowd has never, he believes, been the way forward.
“Winners do this. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t your players do that? Why can’t you be more like the other? Why don’t you do things like they do? And you end up not knowing who you are. And I think one of the things about when you start, you have to know who you are and what your team are and what kind of game you want.”
In this decade alone, four Tipperary men with very different approaches have been in charge of a group which, as a unit, has been both brilliant and unreadable. Kilkenny, through it all, have had the formidable figure of Cody on the sideline; the constant gardener.
Both counties are in slightly unusual territory as they square off in Thurles tomorrow: two defeats from three in the league and no All-Ireland final appearance for two seasons. At least for Tipp, the reunion of Sheedy and O’Shea offers, at the end-year of the decade, a return to the promise of the start of it.