Jackie Tyrrell: Transformed Tipperary looking the real deal again
The players remain the same but Tipp’s mindset radically different since Sheedy’s return
Tipperary’s Barry Heffernan, Padraic Maher, Ronan Maher and goalkeeper Brian Hogan in action against Clare. Tipp look driven this year and that’s when they are at their most dangerous. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In any sport – and especially in hurling – six inches might seem like nothing. In a game where the ball can travel 100 yards in one go and lads can run for miles in the course of a game, what’s six inches to anybody?
The straight answer is, it’s a lot - when you have a game decided by a ghost goal like it was last year between Waterford and Tipperary, when the width of a post or the slip of a hand can change the course of a season. Christ, Tipp would have won the 2014 All-Ireland if Bubbles O’Dwyer’s free had gone six inches to the left. Six inches is plenty.
But the longer you’re in the game, the more you realise that the most important six inches are those that are between the ears. The mind dictates everything for players both on and off the field. How you prepare your mind for battle, how you train, how you think during the week of a big game, how you react to certain situations, when things go wrong and when they go right, your constant mindset. If the mind is right, the body will follow.
Inter-county hurling is a constant battle of the mind. It’s always there, a companion in the car, in the office, on the couch, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. It’s like a never-ending survey that you’re always filling out, over and over. Everything you’re doing on a day-to-day basis is connected to it one way or another.
It’s a round-the-clock mindset. You’re always asking yourself questions. What am I eating? When am I drinking? What have I to do today? How will this impact on my training and match preparation? When do I rest? Where do I rest? For how long? Nutrition. Down-time. Up-time. When to be ready for training. Everything questioned, everything answered.
I know looking back that my mindset was half mad at times, but I loved it. My first thought when I woke up most mornings was electric. Within less than a minute I had my day planned and sussed out. Questions firing though my brain as soon as I opened my eyes.
What day is today? Match day, training day or recovery day? What do I need to do today to improve? The one thing I never said to myself was ‘I have done a good bit and I am not doing anything today’. I knew in myself that I was too restless for that. I’d have got nothing out of it.
So I always did something, even if it was as little as five minutes in the alley or getting a rub. It might have been something as small as 10 minutes of mental preparation or watching an opposing team’s game from the previous weekend. I was always doing something, always moving forward, reassuring myself that I was improving and getting stronger every day, mentally and physically.
Some days the margins gained were tiny and hard to see, some days they were more tangible. There was an improvement to measure – a lower body fat percentage, a quicker 100 metres, a heavier weight on the bar. Or in training or a game, coming away knowing I had kept a good forward in check. Always moving forward.
Everything I’ve listed there was feeding into what sort of state my mind was in. That was the point of it. Always, always looking for an edge. And when you find it, look for another. The people who are better than you usually just looked harder than you did.
Throughout the summer so far, it’s clear for everyone to see which group of players has been relentlessly going after that edge and pushing themselves every day. Tipperary are out in front of the pack, just 12 months after they were heading to the travel agents in early June. And the really interesting thing about them is that they’re doing it with pretty much exactly the same players.
What does that tell you?
Okay, management can change, game plans can change, even your luck can change here and there. But when it’s the same group of players with the same set of skills and the same level of experience, then the most significant change can only be in the six inches between the ears.
Tipp have one of the most skilful panels in the country, some of the best artists in the game and have had for a number of years. That has never been doubted or questioned. But watching them this year, I see them as the perfect example of how a strong, edgy and at times vicious mindset can change a team’s fortunes.
These lads have two All-Irelands when they should have at least four
Specifically, Tipperary’s fortunes. These lads have two All-Irelands when they should have at least four. The key failing behind their underachievement has been down to their mindset. The ability has always been there. The relentless search for an edge hasn’t.
When Tipp win an All-Ireland, they win it well. They leave nobody in any doubt about how talented they are, about how far they are ahead of everybody when they’re on their game. But in 2011 and 2017, they fell flat.
They hadn’t the answers that were needed to win back-to-back. Why? They were beaten in games they shouldn’t have been and they had players not reaching their potential. Why? They had internal issues, disciplinary problems, lads put off the panel, lads dropped for non-hurling reasons. Why?
Mindset, plain and simple. Not enough drive to keep the pace up for a second year in a row. Probably a bit of self-satisfaction too – we did it, we have nothing to prove, let’s enjoy it. But that comes with a price and nobody knows it better than these Tipperary players.
I know from first-hand experience what it’s like to play a Full Metal Jacket Tipperary and the difference when they’re lacking that bit of an edge. It’s like they have a split personality. Or maybe a split mentality.
When Tipperary are in the groove and playing scintillating hurling, it takes a fair team and animal to stop them. I don’t think 15 Chuck Norrises would have stopped them in the 2016 All Ireland final. They were a team on a mission.
That mission was to work like dogs in every play and for every ball. They knew they had the hurling ability for the scores to flow from that. Other times when you played them, you could tell they had days when they just fell back on their hurling and relied on it to get them through.
Which is understandable. When you’re very good at anything in life, it’s a lot more enjoyable just to do that. But it’s a bit indulgent too. And on the days when they would do that, that’s when they were vulnerable.
Nobody is calling them vulnerable this year. Not a hope. Even in the league, when plenty of results went against them, you only had to watch the work they were putting in. In their opening game of the league against Clare, Séamus Callanan scored 2-7 on his first night as team captain.
But more importantly, he chased back half the field at one stage to hook David McInerney. That to me was the biggest statement of the night. Everybody knows Seamie can score 2-7 on any given day. But if he’s showing the rest of his teammates that the first and foremost thing he’s going to do is work himself into the ground to get a hook on a ball, then straight away you’re seeing a shift in mindset.
All the signs so far this year point to this team kicking everything up a gear as regards the intent they bring onto the pitch with them. Bubbles [John O’Dwyer] looking as trim as ever and willing to put the hard shift in at centre-forward – a place you couldn’t dream of playing him before due to his lack of work rate – we haven’t seen that before.
Cathal Barrett has returned to his All Star form at corner back – we haven’t seen that in a few years. Before his injury, Bonner Maher’s return to form as the most hard-running forward in the game, beating defenders at will and scoring – we hadn’t seen that in a long while either.
All the signs that their mindset has returned to being angry and hungry for success. Central to all this is Liam Sheedy and how he has shaped his team and panel. Watch out for it in his interviews – every time he talks in public, the message is loud in clear. Work-rate. Application. Hard work.
This shift in mindset can’t be done overnight like flicking a switch. If it could, Tipp would have done it mid-season when things were going wrong in other years. No, it’s a slow grind. You have to work on it constantly. That’s what I mean by saying it’s a round-the-clock condition.
It’s clear to me that consistent and repetitive messages from Sheedy have seeped into the Tipperary players’ mindset in the months since he took charge.
They have moved now to a place where they are edgy and forceful in every exchange. Watch what they do off the ball. Watch how vigilant they are with each other, how they communicate with each other. Watch how many messages come in off the sideline through Maor Foirne Tommy Dunne and Maor Uisce Eamon O’Shea. Mindset, mindset, mindset.
Now think of them in other years. Games where they were lacklustre. Games where they got squeezed out of a tight finish. Games where they went through the motions. Games where they looked not fully clued in, not fit enough, not radiating that zeal for achieving their potential that you can see in them this year.
Tipperary should be in there fighting for All-Ireland titles every year. Of all counties, they shouldn’t be one-year-up-three-years-down. Players like Noel McGrath, Paudie Maher and Brendan Maher always drag the best out of themselves but time is short in the inter-county game and they don’t have years on their side.
You could say –’Well of course they’re mad hungry this year, they don’t have long to go’. But that was true last year too and they never looked like All-Ireland contenders. Whatever Sheedy has done with them, they look like a team genuinely intent on making up for lost time in 2019.
In my experience, that’s when Tipperary are at their most dangerous.