Difficult days may have been endured during the National League, and especially after the defeat by Limerick in the Munster Championship, but Eamon O’Shea says he never lost faith in his Tipperary team.
“I absolutely believe in the team, that’s why we are back. I believe that the players have a strong belief in themselves and that’s the objective from a management point of view, because they run the game”, the manager says as he prepares for Sunday’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final against Cork.
“When I leave here I just want the players to have a really strong belief in themselves, and for whoever comes in to manage that there is a strong set of beliefs and values within the team”.
Tipperary’s collective belief will undergo a rigorous examination on both sides of the white line at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon.
“We are up against formidable opposition, Munster champions who have more form and consistency than us in terms of the match so it is a really big challenge to see how much belief we do have. We’ll have to be on our ‘A’ game to compete.
They (Cork) have found some new players and have won the Munster Championship, which is a big thing. They are a formidable team, the new players such as Aidan Walsh are strong. Alan Cadogan looks a really class player, Mark Ellis at centre back and Damien Cahalane as well; they have actually grown in terms of where they want to be and are better than last season.
Jimmy Barry Murphy is a first class person and has been a first class manager over the years. He’s an icon in Cork and that is part of the thing, the public then align with the team. They are in a good place”.
Does the Tipp boss anticipate any rustiness from Cork, considering they haven’t played a competitive match since beating Limerick in the Munster Final on July 13 - “It’s hard to know. Five weeks is a long time and it has to be managed properly but Cork are very experienced at it. They have an experienced manager so you wouldn’t anticipate it would be a big issue. From our point of view we had club games the weekend before last, which gave the lads a different perspective as well, it gave them a break from what we were doing”.
With a sizeable attendance expected at GAA headquarters the occasion could prove daunting for Tipp’s younger and less experienced players, although O’Shea isn’t overly concerned.
“Players nowadays are much more able for a lot of different things. They play Fitzgibbon and even playing minor there they are much more streetwise on big occasions, having played in Thurles as well. They play under a degree of pressure, playing for Tipperary is always important. I don’t think it is a big thing but you can never tell.
I remember when we went up in 2008 to the All-Ireland semi-final (against Waterford) I was certainly shocked, for a man of my age, being spooked by Croke Park”.
Assistant manager Michael Ryan takes up the story - “There was a lack of familiarity with the place back then. The question is how the newer guys on the panel will adjust, they’ll chat with a lot of the other guys in the group but effectively a little bit of hand-holding will have to take place and we will facilitate that if needed.
They are not the wet behind-the-ears guys that we were when we went up as minors, 21s or seniors to play back in the day. These guys are at concerts and various things, the Nou Camp might challenge them but I don’t think Croke Park will”.
Players also have the option of chatting to performance coach Kieran McGeeney.
“He would talk to players individually, whoever wants to talk, but not collectively, it was never the plan, he’s not part of the match day set-up”, says the manager. “My view is that he would be useful, he is a guy that I have admired in terms of his approach to the game and that the players might benefit from having a chat with him now and again and they have. I would chat to him as well, occasionally. Players are very different - some players wouldn’t listen to a word I say, not a word, that’s the truth.
There’s only so much you can do for players, you have to allow them to play a little bit and make sure they have the confidence to do it. That’s all you can hope for. We try to encourage where they should be and where they shouldn’t be but it has to come from within. All these guys are very good players and all the Cork guys are very good players so you are operating at a high end here. You can do so much but they have to handle some of the situations themselves, that defines them in my view.
Hurling is such a quick game and it is difficult to theorise about it. I like instinct, they are encouraged to move, encouraged to solve their own puzzles. Somedays it works, somedays it doesn’t but I think instinct has a part to play in a hurling game”.
Since the start of the year Eamon O’Shea had stated repeatedly that the only game that mattered was against Limerick. Defeat then must have come as a severe jolt to the system.
“It takes a while to get over. You have to get over it on the management side pretty quickly. One of the things you don’t know is who you are playing, there’s a hiatus there to the next match, we didn’t have a match for five weeks. It was certainly a big disappointment to lose that game but having said that we had come off a run of form which suggested to me that we were still in there. We got to a League final, we played well enough there. We led Limerick with 68 minutes on the clock, we gave away a goal but came back and had the ball for two minutes and couldn’t put it over the bar. Even when they got the point ahead we moved down the field again. It wasn’t as disappointing perhaps as the result was but we did feel we had something to work on”.
The side found itself on another slippery slope 15 minutes into the second half of the qualifier against Galway when they trailed by 6 points.
“It would be too easy for me to say I was the man of ultimate faith that evening. I wasn’t as worried as other people in the crowd were. I knew that during the week the players had really wanted to do well on that day. I knew we had a good first half. I thought at half time we were in a really good position. The goals we gave away were not good goals but I knew if we got a little bit of a break that the lads were still anxious to play and they would finish.
We had time but I think the inner belief that they had, we knew that in the two or three weeks beforehand preparing for the game that if we were to go out, we would go out really working hard at it.
I wasn’t as concerned but I was wondering where we would get the break from. The break came from the desire. Where does that come from? I would think it comes from the year that we had, there’s resilience there, there is good backbone there. We have had our disappointments and I think it came from within themselves (the players).I didn’t see the game as gone but I didn’t forsee what was going to unfold”.
When questioned if there was an element of relief in his reaction to Seamus Callanan’s third goal, which clinched the win against Galway, he says “there was an element that we had worked really hard. Bonner (Maher) had stopped the defender going across, Seamie had worked across and blocked the ball down. We had worked on that for three sessions in-a-row. We had worked on stopping the defenders from clearing the ball and we had thirty seconds where we kept the ball in there. We had worked on putting the hurley across, forcing them across the line, putting the hurley in to break the ball and in turned out we got the goal from it. For me it was as much if you work hard at it the goal will come. Of course I was relieved, we were still in the championship but the way the goal was scored was more important”.
That 9-points victory was followed by a win over Offaly in Portlaoise and then came the quarter-final against Dublin, back in Thurles.
“The Dublin game, although it was a poorish enough game with both sides unhappy with their performance, I wasn’t that unhappy as I thought we were in really good shape to play that game. Whatever was going to be thrown at us that day I think we would have managed it. We didn’t have to respond but there were times in that game where we had to mind the game, and we did”.
The sequence of three straight wins has brought Tipp back to Croke Park and a meeting with age-old rivals. Eamon O’Shea’s memories of playing against The Rebels stretch way back to 1979.
“I remember playing Cork down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and we lost by a point. We had won the League and went down there and had a chance. Talking about how vivid that is, 35 years on from that I can still visualise a goal I missed. You don’t forget when you make mistakes like that.
“I remember 1980, the following year at Semple Stadium, and it shows you how concentrated I was, I could see the crowd filing out with fifteen minutes left and I headed for New York city within a week as I was a student at the time.
I can remember the not-so-good times as well as seeing the next generation come along, I was still hurling but not on the team. Tipp/Cork is always something special”.