There is a cracking Sportsfile picture of Liam Sheedy after the Munster Championship win over Clare.
In it he clasps Barry Heffernan’s hand, stares up into the Nenagh man’s eyes with a look that confirms he knew all along. Already towering over his manager, Heffernan, until then an occasional presence in the Tipp defence, almost grows in shot.
That’s what Liam Sheedy brings, they all say. Builds you up. Yet, you get the feeling Sheedy had an ear to the ground this year for people tearing his players down. For his second coming as Tipp boss, Sheedy leaned a little on history, then scratched around for grievance.
To mark the beginning of Tipp’s Portroe era - a fusion of Sheedy’s magnetism and Declan Kelly’s public relations empire - an April celebration of Tipperary hurling was held in the Mansion House. At it, Tipp’s eight living senior All-Ireland winning captains were honoured.
Perhaps Sheedy got more out of that night than expected. Perhaps he left it wondering why the current crop are not quite afforded the reverence past greats are held in. Yesterday, the county won a third All-Ireland in the same decade for the first time since the 60s. To Sheedy that was more than a statistical quirk.
“That means something to us, that means something, because I think this team has had more people saying what they weren’t over the last 10 years than what they were. And when people look back on this decade they’ll see a Tipperary team that won three (All-Ireland titles).
“We all sat and we honoured the previous captains of teams in Tipperary, but we have a wonderful group of players who have taken to the pitch in this decade and I’m delighted to see that group of players rewarded with another All-Ireland.
“Because maybe instead of going back to the 60s all the time, maybe we should talk about this decade. Because I think at the moment in this Tipperary squad, we have some of the best players ever to wear that blue and gold jersey and that’s what makes me honoured and privileged to get the chance to work with them.”
When Sheedy returned to the helm, this was the gang of 2006 getting back together for one last medal. Or so the narrative went.
“I’ve worked with a lot of those guys since they were minor in 2006, I had Brendan Maher since he was 16 in North Tipperary. So of course they mean a huge amount to me but the whole group means an awful lot.
“But I’ve a special connection with that group that I worked with as minors and seniors in 2010, and they’re giving as much to me and to the county today as they were 10 years ago, which is the greatest credit.”
That ear to the ground can’t but have heard Jackie Tyrrell’s sermon this week about Tipp’s inability to front up. Sheedy wouldn’t say he didn’t use it.
“Look, I can’t control what anyone says, but we do believe we have it in our locker to go toe to toe with teams, whether it be physically, whether it be mentally, or whether it be skilfully, and I think we’ve probably seen that over the course of this championship and that makes it very, very pleasing.” There was a special word for goal a game Callanan, a player who long ago shrugged off the flaky tag thrown at many of these players.
Yet Sheedy spent much of his spring fielding worries about his captain’s free-taking.
“He’s been superb. To score a goal in every round of this championship, when he’s being targeted and he is being marked, I think it is just exceptional.
“The year he’s had - he gave the frees to Jason and he took on his own mantle, and I think the journey he’s gone with this team, the leadership he’s shown... because every time he raised the green flag it’s nearly four points because he’s such a character within the dressing-room.
“I’m personally delighted for him, I don’t know did anyone see that in 2001 he set foot on that pitch and played in the mini-games, he went out in 2010 and came off the bench and played a massive, massive role in us winning an All-Ireland title, and here he is now, captaining the team.
“It could not happen to a better guy and what he has given Tipperary over the last number of years, and to me personally, has been phenomenal.”
At 8-3 down in the first half, the tearing down of these players looked set to restart in earnest. Sheedy admitted he was worried much earlier.
All-Ireland final days are big days. I even felt in the warm-up, I just felt guys were a little bit – we went to some balls that normally on a Tuesday night in Thurles they pick them and they’re gone, we just didn’t have our flow.
“Their positional changes, Walter was moving across to the other side and some of that diagonal movement was hurting us a little bit. It took us a little while to get to the pitch of it but in fairness to the lads they worked it out, they got to the pitch of it.
“I just thought defensively we had some heroic performances from Tipp. Seamus, Brendan and Paudie on the half-back line.”
And there was his newly-built giant.
“Barry Heffernan was just a man possessed out there on that field. I’m just absolutely thrilled for him, a guy that maybe people said ‘could he make it?’ I think he showed today the real leader and the real man he is today.
“As for the other two, Cathal and Ronan at the end of the square, he’s a beast. So I just thought defensively was where we built that platform today to allow us to get such a great score.”
The sending-off incident he didn’t see.
“Look, it had a huge bearing on the game, no question, no question. Obviously to play a man down for such a long period is always going to be a difficult, difficult assignment.
“Whatever about playing a game a man down, when you start chasing it and you go seven or eight down, it’s very difficult to claw it back. For long periods of that first half we were gasping for air, to be honest with you. We needed a goal when we got it, an individual piece of brilliance by Niall.”
Now Sheedy’s modern day giants can bask a while in their new pecking order on the pantheon.
“It’s just pure elation and honestly my parish, Portroe, means a lot to me, my family means a lot to me and this group of players means a lot to me, so it’s probably a culmination of all three that you feel in the end. But ultimately this journey was never about me, this is about this group of players and all of the credit this evening should go to this group of players because the way that they have gone about their business in the most professional manner, night in, night out, since November, is incredible, is incredible, and I’m just absolutely thrilled to be a part of that.”
Bubbles: I just wasn’t good enough — Liam told me home truths
By the end of Tipperary’s miserable 2018, John O’Dwyer was almost an afterthought. Sent for at the dog end of the Clare defeat in Thurles, his was a rescue act nobody seemed to believe in anymore.
When he claimed his first All-Ireland title in 2016, Bubbles floated around Croke Park seemingly without care, then roared his jubilation into the Croke Park mics. Yesterday, he struck another beautiful goal to match the one that accelerated Tipp’s sprint to the line three years ago.
But in the bowels of the stadium, satisfaction came quieter, more reflective. He doesn’t know yet if this matches the surge of invincibility you feel at the summit for the first time. But when he crunches it all, the Bubbles who has been right back down to the foot of the climb might regard this one as even sweeter. Nobody in Tipp ever had a concern with O’Dwyer’s skill. But...
“Liam came back and he told me a few home truths at the start of the year, and I worked a lot with the S&C,” he said. “It was just about getting that base fitness. I had an operation at the start of the year. It kind of held me back last year a small bit, but that’s not an excuse. I just wasn’t good enough to get onto the team.
“That was basically it. It’s not just a personal thing, the team as a whole, we all did it together, we went through thick and thin together and that was the most pleasing part. Personally, it’s good to win, to play, but there’s 39 other players in the squad. Just collectively, it’s brilliant for us.
“I suppose 2016 was my first. Your first, you’re always going to cherish that bit more. This is my second one, and it’s after taking us three years to get back again. But having the ability to come back and win another one is a different kind of feeling. Once you sit down with your family, once you sit down with your friends and your team-mates, that’s when it’ll start sinking in.”
By the finish, Tipp were able to embroider this one even more ornately than the nine-point win over Kilkenny under Michael Ryan. But it had to be hewn out first, during that first-half spell when nobody’s touch was velvet.
“Maybe the first goal (turned it),” he said. “I think the weather in the first half had a lot to do with it. Still, when we got that goal, Kilkenny came back again.
We spoke at half time, stick to what we’re doing, and we came out in the second half and we stuck to our process. We knew if we did that, we’d be winners on the day. It probably looked comfortable because they went down to 14 men — but it wasn’t.
Is that really all it was? Not the spirit of Knocknagow, not age-old enmities, nor even week-old enmities courtesy of Jackie Tyrrell? It was all down to sticking to the process?
“Nothing really different to any other game. It’s just go out and... the way hurling is going, it’s all process-driven, it’s all structure-driven. So we just said that we were on a different scale compared to the semi-final, whereas the team that we were playing against went down to 14.
“So we just said: ‘Don’t let them come at us just because they’re down to 14 men. Just go out, stick to your process and try and win the game.’ After we got our second goal, Kilkenny came with a bit of a barrage. They attacked into the full-forward line with TJ there.
“It wasn’t simple. The scores didn’t come too easy, like. We worked hard. That was one of our pillars, to work hard and make sure that just because they were down to 14 men that we didn’t take our foot off the pedal.”
If Sheedy has proven Tipp’s North Star again, O’Dwyer wasn’t forgetting the galaxy of big names around him. After Richie Hogan’s sending off, Tommy Dunne was immediately on the field, presumably lecturing on the process.
“Just Liam returning was no good,” says O’Dwyer. “He’s only as good as his backroom team. He came back with a backroom team that was different class.
“He got the people that he wanted. Without them, Liam was no good, and he’d tell you that himself. Just the whole professionalism and the way they go about their business. Our S&C, our nutritionist, our coaches, everything that you look for is given to you on a plate. You know there was no stone left unturned, and we got our just reward at the end of the day.”
One last day out for John Bull?
As rain and hail drenched the first half, it wasn’t an afternoon for ‘playing through the lines’. Was this one final day out for thedirect approach, for John Bull and the last remnants of British culture etcetc? Kilkenny prospered far better as passes slipped off the sticks, Tipp accumulated spillages and TJ Reid accumulated frees.
There was one Richie Hogan miss that felt more of a let-off than it should, so early. Padraic Maher had been foiled bursting out and Kilkenny lungs were ready to swell. It dropped wide, the sun briefly came out, and like Kate Bush maybe Tipp knew something good was going to happen.
Niall O’Meara gave Conor Fogarty twisted blood and Tipp were levelin a game that had started without them.
After a week dominated by who would handle the football final, all of a sudden James Owens held the hurling final in his hands. Richie Hogan capsized Cathal Barrett with an elbow. But all previous experience suggested some kind of agreement would be reached.
Slippery surface. Not that kind of player. Mitigation piled up. But after mulling over testimony from his linesman Johnny Murphy, Owens acted in the only way the rules allowed. All week we had heard how this would be Cody’s greatest achievement. If he played off three cushions to get out of this snooker, it truly would be.
But Cody soon needed snookers himself. The unfortunate Adrian Mullen departed. Callanan slid in to complete his goal a game dream summer.
Bubbles swung one over, before Tipp’s marquee duo combined for the obligatory trademark goal ‘with Eamon O’ Shea’s stamp all over it’.
At the other end, Ronan Maher and Seamus Kennedy defied everything and Barry Heffernan had long forgotten some early slips. And long before the end, we were set for that rarest of beasts between these two: a final act without true drama.