Sheedy finds path from the wilderness

He was overweight, and a mite unfit, when the call came

He was overweight, and a mite unfit, when the call came. Liam Sheedy, a player discarded and seemingly forgotten by a series of different management regimes, didn't need to think twice when Len Gaynor invited him into the last-chance saloon.

Twelve months on, he is two stones lighter and seems as if he was born to be a part of Tipperary's quest to create history. Liam Sheedy is the pride of Portroe, a cult hero. But, then, he always was: when he managed the parish's camogie team; when he looked after the club's under-14 hurlers; and, years ago, when he collected underage medals himself as if they were going out of fashion. Nobody thought, however, that it would take Liam to reach his late 20s before he made the big time, before they'd be painting his name on the pavements.

The journey has been a long one. In 1989, as a star member of the county's under-21 side, Sheedy was promoted to the full senior side for a National League match against Dublin in Croke Park. It was Tipperary's first match since winning the All-Ireland and the Dubs formed a guard-of-honour out onto the pitch. The generosity ended there, however, and Dublin won by a point. That match, and a couple of Oireachtas games, marked Sheedy's only contribution to the cause. He was forgotten about, dispatched back to play competitions with Portroe and, almost inevitably, see his hurling summers extend to one solitary club championship match. As far as inter-county fare was concerned, he was in limbo.

"I never thought I'd be left waiting another seven years [to get back into the Tipperary panel]," he says. "Always, in the back of my head, I had the feeling that maybe I should have made more of it, wondered what I was missing out on. But when you do get another chance, you're not long in taking it." Sheedy has taken his chance, with both hands.


In Portroe, a village of about 800 people, they have rowed in behind him. About 200 made the trip to Clones for his championship debut against Down; the entourage had doubled to 400 for the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford in Croke Park. "I don't know how many will manage to get tickets for the final, but it won't be for the want of trying. They're searching and combing every corner of the country to get their hands on them," he says.

Portroe is the sort of place that encapsulates the heart and soul of the Gaelic Athletic Association. "A lovely little place," says Liam, "all hurling mad." It had to rub off on Sheedy, whose brother John is remembered - sadly - for his mistake in the 1984 Munster Final. Tipperary were four points up with four minutes to go when John Sheedy, playing in goal, put up his hurley to stop the sliothar sailing over the crossbar but only managed to bring it down for Seanie O'Leary to send to the net. Liam, who had played for Tipperary's under-16s earlier on, watched and immediately felt the enormity of it all.

Nowadays, he can be more philosophical. "John didn't have the best of luck, it was just one of those things. Time was almost up and he had a choice to make. Do you bring it down? Or do you leave it go over? With a small bit of luck he could have won a Munster medal and probably an All-Ireland the same year."

The irony is that there was no second chance for John. This time round, as beaten Munster finalists, Tipperary got another bite and have made the most of it. And no-one more than Liam Sheedy, who has only booked the right-half-back position since the team moved into the All-Ireland series.

John may be Liam's hurling adviser - "he's my pilot," says Liam - but his mother, Bid, is his biggest fan. She's 72 and never misses a match. "She is delighted at what has been achieved to date, to win next Sunday would really crown it off," claims Liam.

"My mother lights a blessed candle every time I go out, and Padre Pio is always close to her side. But I'll tell you, things like that are a help on a match day too, getting all the assistance you can."

Yet, since getting the call-up from Tipperary's new management team a year ago, Sheedy has helped his own cause considerably. From his underage days, it was always known he had the talent. Gaynor, from the neighbouring Kilruane McDonaghs club, had kept an eye on him. Last October, the call came from Gaynor and selectors Murt Duggan and Michael Doyle to join the panel.

"After waiting that long, I'd have jumped over the wire around the pitch to get involved. There are 40 or 50 honest to goodness hurlers out there. A lot of the players I was with in underage hurling haven't come through, so when you get the break you have to take it," he says.

Liam weighed in at 14 stones on the scales when brought into the county squad. Now, he is a fit, trim 12 stones, the combination of extra physical work and better nutrition. "I probably didn't look after myself as well as I should," he admits. "I've a fine appetite. But I didn't know what a carbohydrate diet was, for instance, and good sensible eating is important. Murt [Duggan] is pretty much our dietician and we've had discussions on what we should eat. I've also cut out the big pint glass. There is no ban on drinking. It's optional, up to yourself. However, in fairness to yourself and the team, you have to put it to bed. You've got to take a professional approach."

Sheedy's impact - at the age of 27 - on the championship, his rookie campaign, has been remarkable. He's repaying the faith that Gaynor, Duggan and Doyle placed in him. "Len is the sort of fella you'd do anything for, really. I've the utmost respect for the three of them, and what they have done for me. They seen something in me, brought in someone who was 14 stones and going nowhere. Now, I'm only 12 stone and playing the best hurling of my life."

Next Sunday, the odds are that he'll be required to stifle Jamesie O'Connor. "I don't know. In the last match, he played on the other wing. Jamsie is a roamer and he'll always pick up a couple of points. But, then, anyone playing inter-county hurling these days is going to be a hard man to mark. The game is so quick, and the training demands are immense. You could nearly be out seven nights a week."

"In fact, if someone was to ask me who is the person in the world I'd most like to meet, at this stage, I'd nearly say my wife, Margaret." Such are the demands of top hurling, these days. However, the atmosphere in Tipperary is, surprisingly, relaxed in the run-up to the big match. In Portroe, however, they are very much behind their own man, someone who has served the parish so well, not just as a player but also as a mentor.

A few years ago, Liam's sister-in-law, Mary, wondered would he be interested in managing the camogie team. He did, for two years. In his spell in charge, the team were beaten in the county final of the league and the county final of the championship after a replay.

Earlier this year, he coached the club's under-14 team - made up, virtually, of every boy under age in the village who was able to hold a hurley and three girls - to a county title.

Success is very much in the air, as far as Sheedy is concerned. His elevation to the Tipperary team has come at the expense of another fine hurler, Raymie Ryan. "We're close friends, on and off the pitch. I know he is 100 per cent behind me, just as I'd be 100 per cent behind him. We encourage each other.

Certainly, Tipperary have made the most of their re-entry into the championship. The simple fact remains, however, that to win the Liam McCarthy Cup, Tipperary will have needed to beat the Ulster champions, the Leinster champions (and reigning All-Ireland champions), and, in the most remarkable twist of all, the Munster champions. Sheedy couldn't have picked a tougher - or better - time to break into the side.