Not for the first and hopefully not for the last time, Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett once again flew in the face of the mainstream.
On the always-interesting GAA Hour, the former Laois manager, who once managed a midlands rock band called Mere Mortals that made it onto the bill of Féile, reminded his fellow maverick of a Laois man, Colm Parkinson, that contrary to how the media consensus forming around Liam MacCarthy’s latest trip to Tipp, Liam Sheedy was no messiah but rather a mere mortal himself.
“A lot of the journalists are very lazy, building up Liam,” he claimed, his magnificent Motorhead moustache still intact. “Liam has had a very good team, including some of the best hurlers to ever play with Tipperary. And Liam knows that. Liam is not a fool.
"Liam is not going into Westmeath or Laois or Carlow or Antrim and turning them around into winning Leinster championships or All-Irelands. He knows well what he had available to him and he also knows well the connection he has with the players.”
For Plunkett, the “crap” narrative that Sheedy had completely turned Tipp around upon his reappointment was disrespectful of his predecessor, Michael Ryan. Only three years earlier Ryan had also won an All-Ireland, comprehensively beating a stronger Kilkenny team than the one Tipp encountered last weekend.
If anything, that 2016 triumph was a finer achievement, in Plunkett’s analysis, for Ryan having already worked with that group of players for three years as a selector to Eamon O’Shea and managing to identify and eke out the required and significant improvement from them for them to finally get them over the line. Sheedy had come in fresh and at a time when the only way for the group was up.
To assume Tipp would make a better fist of their defence of the All-Ireland under Sheedy than they did under Ryan, when they came within a Joe Canning wonder point from getting back to another All-Ireland final and probably winning it, wouldn’t just be premature but folly, in Cheddar’s view.
We get what Plunkett is getting at. In the aftermath of any All-Ireland final, there is a tendency and rush to proclaim the victorious manager as some sort of genius or guru. Especially if that All-Ireland is delivered in year one of that genius’s appointment, the subtext of the narrative around what was different from last year and what was the difference this year doesn’t always portray the preceding manager in a flattering light.
It was no harm for Cheddar to remind people that in Tipp’s case, that preceding manager won an All-Ireland too — and through the front door, without losing or even drawing a game, a feat Niall O’Meara suggested last Monday morning on OTB AM that we’ll probably never see a Munster team pull off again.
Cheddar though will be glad to know no-one would have been happier last Sunday night than Ryan himself to see the Liam MacCarthy Cup on parade in the Clayton Ballsbridge Hotel. If the night was like a wedding, then Ryan was less like the estranged father or ex-husband but more like a favourite, doting uncle, delighted for all concerned.
After the 2016 triumph that Ryan presided over, Seamus Callanan spoke in terms of Tipp being like “a family”. It wasn’t a word he would have used flippantly. It was a term and spirit cultivated by Sheedy, to the point that when he, Ryan, and Eamon O’Shea all stepped down in one swoop within weeks of the 2010 victory, players like Lar Corbett felt betrayed, abandoned, like a son seeing his father walk out the door.
Over the years, though, the family would reunite. In 2013 O’Shea returned as manager, with Ryan one of his selectors, along with Paudie O’Neill. O’Shea’s three-year tenure may not have resulted in an All-Ireland but they came within a HawkEye decision of winning it, to go with a Munster title and the likes of Bubbles and Callanan serving up some of the most stunning hurling of the middle of the decade.
Crucially they made sure that when the father figure that was O’Shea departed, there would be a plan in place for the children to be properly looked after. A year out from O’Shea finishing up, it was announced Ryan would be his successor. And O’Shea still visited them. A few days ahead of several big games that summer of 2016, O’Shea would meet up with Callanan for one-to-one work.
Four days before the All-Ireland final, when Callanan torched the Kilkenny defence for nine points from play, he and O’Shea could be seen on the pitch in Thurles, walking and talking through how he was going to move and carry himself the following Sunday, how he was going to indicate where he wanted the ball, where he was going to get it, where he was going to shoot from.
A few months after that All-Ireland, I met a delighted O’Neill at a coaching conference. Something that had greatly amused rather than irritated him was the amount of people who had tried to console him, “how tough it must be” to not have been involved the year they actually went on to win the thing outright. He wasn’t thinking like that.
Would he still have loved to have won an All-Ireland in 2014 or 2015? Absolutely. But was any part of him at all sad Tipp had won the All-Ireland in 2016? Absolutely not. He was delighted for the players. It wasn’t about him. It was about the players. Tipp. Just as his great companion O’Shea did, egolessly still guiding Callanan and helping him win his All-Ireland, even if that triumph might trigger comparisons with O’Shea’s trophyless tenure.
Last Sunday O’Sheafinally got his hands on Liam MacCarthy again, lifting it with Sheedy, Tommy Dunne, and Darragh Egan, just as O’Shea had with Ryan and Sheedy in 2010, and as Ryan managed in 2016 with Conor Stakelum and Declan Fanning.
There was something particularly symbolic about this 2019 management team hoisting that cup up together. Sheedy has an ego all right, but a well-proportioned one, not one too big to pass on bringing a coach of O’Shea’s calibre and standing back into the fold.
Dunne’s presence was even more powerful. In 2011 and 2012, he and Declan Ryan would at times have felt like the unwanted stepparents after the family broke up, but again Sheedy saw quality more than baggage, though he wouldn’t have been indifferent to how this opportunity could offer redemption and erase any hurt that lingered with Dunne.
That is what Cheddar might not have fully appreciated. Not everyone could have brought the family back together like Sheedy, just like not everybody could have won that 2010 All-Ireland and stopped the greatest hurling team of all time doing what the greatest football team of all time are likely to do on Sunday week.
From 2002 to 2007, Tipperary had Eoin Kelly in his absolute prime and the likes of Eamon Corcoran. Yet they couldn’t win a Munster title or reach anAll-Ireland. It took someone special to mould good players into a very good team.
It also took someone special to establish that “connection” with players Cheddar spoke to. Not everyone could have established it, just as not everyone in 2012 could have won Portroe their first-ever north Tipperary championship, the equivalent of a Laois winning Leinster. The same year he also helped Newmarket-on-Fergus win their first Clare county title in 31 years. Again, not everyone can do that. Just as not everyone could chair the Irish Institute of Sport.
If he had his way last year, Sheedy would be director general of the GAA right now. He would have been perfect for it; his vision, attention to detail, ability to delegate and work with people and make them feel good about themselves and belong. He’d have been the ideal frontman, not just a familiar face and articulate voice, but one you’d trust as well as know.
Looking at the outpouring of joy he would have encountered since 5pm last Sunday, he must be a bit like Gareth Brooks, thanking God for unanswered prayers.
The GAA’s loss has been Tipperary’s glorious gain. You can already see how he’s planning ahead. Cheddar might be right and Tipp won’t retain the All-Ireland but they’ll be in the shake-up, geared to win three of the next six. And when he does step down this time, he’ll make sure the kids won’t feel abandoned. There’ll be a succession plan in place. Another member of the family will step in.
The Godfather that is Sheedy will see to it and that there’ll be a place for a Dunne and the next Dunne and O’Shea.
Tipp. Where, with Sheedy at the helm, they all belong.