EAMON O’Shea stood on the sideline and glanced towards the scoreboard at Semple Stadium. It was 8.08pm, Galway were leading 4-12 to 1-15 and 20 minutes remained. Time — his time as Tipperary manager — was running out.
If ever there was a moment to panic, this was it. Having presided over a troubled reign where successive Munster Championship defeats to Limerick got sandwiched in between a narrow loss to a Kilkenny team far from its best, O’Shea was in danger of losing his job without ever claiming a solitary Championship win.
Nicknamed ‘the Nutty Professor’ courtesy of his day-job as a Personal Professor in the School of Business & Economics in NUIG, O’Shea stood on the edge of a sporting cliff, knowing it was do-or-die.
Everything he believed in, a set of players and a set of principles, was on the line. He wasn’t aware of it at the time but yards to his right, a sideline reporter was being briefed about the line of questioning he had to take in the post-match interviews.
“Question one, ask O’Shea if this is the last we will see of Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and Paul Curran. Question two, ask if he is going to resign.’
This was July 5. Two months on, the landscape has changed. Corbett, Kelly and Curran are still there. And so is the Nutty Professor.
Galway are gone, though. Blitzed 2-10 to 0-1 in those final 20 minutes, they were the first to fall. Offaly were next, then Dublin and then Cork. The team that had choked in the finishing straight against Limerick (twice) and Kilkenny (in last year’s Championship and this year’s League final) have found form, no one more so than Seamus Callanan, hurler of the year in waiting.
Abused by his own supporters after Tipp’s defeat to Limerick, Callanan has since scored 8-9 from play in this year’s Championship, creating another 2-10. A player transformed, O’Shea is the man he credits for the turnaround, the first manager to show faith in him.
“Eamon has just been unreal to me,” said Callanan. “I’ve so much to thank him for.”
He isn’t alone. Padraic Maher — effectively given a free role to rove around the Tipp defence — is back to his best. So too is Brendan Maher and Patrick Bonner Maher. In midfield, Shane McGrath and James Woodlock provide a fairy tale subplot to the whole story, one recovering from a loss of form, the other from a horrible injury which threatened his career. Together, they have set the tone for Tipp’s revival.
“Those last 20 minutes against Galway are becoming more significant as the weeks go by,” wrote Ger Loughnane in his Star column, “because that is where they have picked up the confidence and momentum to drive forward.
“All of us who have been sceptical about Tipperary’s approach have to now acknowledge the brilliant job Eamon O’Shea has done with the team. Even when their own supporters were turning against them, he exuded confidence and instilled that belief into his players. They repaid that against Cork.”
They certainly did. Callanan again was the star but all around him, players peaked, the six forwards creating 93 plays over the course of the game, the most any side has managed in this year’s Championship.
With the defence settled, and Darren Gleeson maturing into a superb replacement for Brendan Cummins, Tipp — all of a sudden — look the Tipp of 2010 again.
“What Gleeson did against Cork was the best puck out strategy I’ve ever seen,” said Donal Óg Cusack after their semi-final victory.
And while Cork’s implosion has undermined the victory to some extent, the reality remains that Tipperary are a force again.
“It would be too easy for me to say that I was the man of ultimate faith during that Galway game,” says O’Shea of the turning point in Tipp’s year and his regime.
“But I have to say I wasn’t as worried as other people in the crowd were. I knew how much the players wanted it. We had coughed up some soft goals but I knew there was a willingness of the players to go down fighting. I wasn’t as concerned as others. But I did wonder where the break would come from.”
He has wondered before. In 2009, when he was Liam Sheedy’s sidekick, he watched Lar Corbett make three clever runs against Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final and end the half with just one touch of the ball.
So he made a beeline for him at half-time. Corbett, self-conscious after an unspectacular performance, braced himself for a bollocking. Instead, O’Shea told him he was world class, that his runs were not the problem, but that the ball being delivered was the issue damaging Tipp.
Less than an hour later Corbett had a hat-trick, Tipp had a spot in the All-Ireland final and the seeds for their 2010 success — when Corbett won the hurler of the year award —were sown.
“Eamon just has a cool head on his shoulders,” said Corbett. “He never presses the panic button.”
He could have done so this year. With his players criticised for going on a bender following the Limerick loss, he could have gone in search of new players.
But he believed they would come good, staying patient as the Tipp public’s faith began to waver. He admits he has made mistakes, having never found a settled full-back, having taken time before getting his midfield partnership right.
But he is a resilient man. Even when criticism was at its height, he learned to ignore it, staying true to his view that the team’s structures were good.
“I just absolutely believed in them,” said O’Shea. “I was not worried about them. I was more worried, as a manager, about figuring out what we had to do to get it right.”
What he has got right are his tactics, which have become more direct. Their forward line has settled and their work rate has increased, his defence has become more disciplined, coughing up fewer frees. His midfield finally functions.
“When I leave this job, I just want the players to have a really strong belief in themselves so that whoever comes in and manages this has a strong set of values within the team. You look at Seamus [Callanan]. He has been really good this year but he has been working really hard for 18 months. It hasn’t happened by accident. I know there have been hiccups but he has been working hard for it.
“Consistency is what you want from a top player. He has brought that to his game.”
As have Tipp to theirs.
“The problem in Tipperary hurling was not the manager but the players,” wrote Loughnane.
“Too many hadn’t shown the stomach for Championship battle. I know they won the 2010 All-Ireland but when Sheedy left, I said the following year that I couldn’t see them being successful in the long term.
“Too many hadn’t the self-discipline required for top-level sport. They have struggled since 2010. Eamon, to his credit, has made them work hard, made them believe. They deserve their place in the final.”
And yet for all their progress few believe they can do it. After all it is Kilkenny, who they have lost to 11 times in 14 League and Championship meetings since 2009.
“People doubt us,” said O’Shea. “We are used to that. And we are used to rising above those comments.”