KIERAN SHANNON: That’s how winning is done

Let me tell you somethin’, the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.

It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward, how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” - Rocky Balboa in Rocky Balboa

The way Seamus Hennessy looks at it, every inter-county player is just passing through; you only have that shirt or that spot in the dressing room for so long. It might be for just one game and you’re not asked back. It might be one year, three years, five, or in the freakish case of a Tony Browne or a Brendan Cummins, bordering on 20. But even they move on. You might always be a supporter but you’re only for so long ever a county player.

Seamus Hennessy is one of the guys who were only there for four or five years, on and off. He’s acutely aware that he never started a senior championship game; in fact, his cerebral nature as well as his modesty prompts him to say that if you added all his championship playing time up you’d have a little less than a full half of hurling.

But what he crammed into those 35 minutes and what he experienced over those five years, and what that dressing room got to know in him.

Whatever about a statistic you could coldly reduce him to a moment. The 2010 All-Ireland final.

The game is about to enter injury-time and Tipperary have just gone five points up after two of their substitutes, David Young and Benny Dunne, combine for the latter to point from range.

Seconds later the ball is pucked out only for Hennessy, another player just on the field a few minutes, to break onto it. He powers through a few black-and-amber tackles and without even returning the ball to his hand strikes off his left side on the run from 70 yards out to lift the roof of Croker and put Tipp two clear goals ahead. They’re there now.

Six days later they indicate they’re going to stay there forever in the Promised Land with all their promise. The U21s whip Galway in Thurles by 25 points, the highest-winning margin in an All-Ireland final in that grade.

Six of them had got game time with the seniors the previous week: Paudie Maher, Mickey Cahill, Brendan Maher, Bonner Maher, and playing alongside Noel McGrath in midfield, Hennessy.

Fast-forward to now and all the others remain hurling household names. They should all see the field tomorrow. But not Hennessy. Instead he’ll watch it in the stands alongside his father.

He feels he’s no loss to the side. “I’m not consequential as to whether the team wins or loses,” he says over a glass of water in Dundrum in the Dublin suburbs where he resides these last few months.

“If it was a Seamus Callanan or Paudie Maher or Noel McGrath you could say, ‘God, if only we had him, he’s a big loss’. I was never that calibre of player. People don’t say that about me.”

Brendan Cummins for one, however, would disagree.

In Damian Lawlor’s recent book Fields of Fire, the former goalkeeper talks about the frustration of the promise of 2010 fading away through indiscipline. If Hennessy hadn’t been so troubled by injury, Tipperary might not have been so troubled by indiscipline. “He [Hennessy] was a huge loss,” Cummins would tell Lawlor. “The influence he had on his peers; he just did everything right. Fellas were going out and not eating the right stuff, or not training enough, but ‘Fez’ as we call him would come in and be in peak condition at all times of year and put you to shame. He had no trouble telling fellas to cop on... That loss of character and ability hurt us. He played well every day but he did things right — that’s why.”

He was a winner. Not a natural-born one, just a Cloughjordan-born one which he proudly says made him, playing there through the ranks with Kilruane MacDonaghs. He’d win two All-Ireland minor titles. His first year out of minor he would straight away captain the county U21s to a Munster title and a year later play a few minutes in the classic senior National League final against Kilkenny.

Then came 2010.

It would start off with winning the Fitzgibbon Cup with NUIG. Then there was the U21s who seemed to be exiting the championship down in Cork until he stepped up to bury a critical penalty and send the game into extra-time and that team on a journey that would climax with wiping Galway off the face of Semple Stadium. Add all to that moment and that point with the seniors a week earlier in Croker and it seemed inevitable that Seamus Hennessy would have a lot more moments with Tipp.

Then what happened? Life. And as Rocky says and Hennessy quotes in his insightful ‘thoughts of a curious mind’ blogs, life ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. He learned that the hard way in 2000 when at just 11 years of his age he lost his mother through suicide. And he would learn it again through injury.

The first time the knee started to give him some bother was that summer of 2010. It acted up before the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, which cost him his place on that match-day 26, and he started to feel it again that November early on in an U21 club semi-final.

He would get through that game and as they won vowed hell or high water he’d play in the final in January, and after again enduring and winning that final decided to squeeze a Fitzgibbon Cup game in too.

But after that campaign he went up to Cappagh Hospital. He thought it would be just a routine scope but the surgeon told him it was a bit more complicated than that. Instead of being out for just three weeks he’d be out for at least three months.

He would try all in his power to get back for championship. The team physio, John Casey, was a rock of support, team trainer Cian O’Neill too. And then there was dad. Whenever Seamus Junior would become troubled with self-doubt or self-pity Seamus Senior was there to check him.

“I remember my father having to listen to me over dinner and I’d be going, ‘Am I going to get back? Why me?’ but very quickly you’d realise, ‘Wait a minute, there are a lot of people on this island in a lot worse place than you’. I particularly got a real fright when I heard about Paul Darbyshire, the Munster [rugby] fitness coach. He passed away that summer at just 42 with motor neuron disease. I remember going, ‘Pull the breaks. I’m just not able to play a sport at the level I’d like for a while. There’s more to life than hurling’.”

He’d always been aware of that, his father placing a huge emphasis on his education, and so with travel being the best form of education there is, after watching the Munster final demolition of Waterford from the subs’ bench he’d head to the Balkans for a few weeks.

He’d make his way to Split, then cross over into Bosnia and take in the famous old bridge in Mostar that was blown up in the conflict. In Sarajevo he’d see the underground tunnels and even bullet holes on the facade of a Starbucks in the city centre. Suffice to say, it helped put the Tipperary-Kilkenny rivalry and their 2011 All-Ireland final clash in perspective, even though he hugely appreciated that Declan Ryan thought highly enough of him to bestow upon him the honour of receiving a jersey for that game and watching it among the subs.

He was on crutches that day, having undergone surgery just the previous Thursday. Again he would do all in his power to get back, Gary Ryan overseeing his gym and rehab work up in NUIG. He would get back to playing with the club in the summer of 2012, once even flying back from Hong Kong, where he was working on his international management thesis, to play a half of hurling against Borrisoleigh.

He would then travel again, playing for the Tipperary club in New York and working in a million-dollar downtown apartment overlooking Ground Zero. Watching championship games in the bars of Yonkers and how much the county colours and national anthem meant to the diaspora there, he resolved to continue to do everything to wear those Tipp colours and stand for that anthem again.

“It was always in my mind that I would go again. I had a sense of unfinished business. I was acutely aware that I had never started a championship game for Tipperary. But I felt that I had a really good 2010 across a number of different teams and was now in a position to really push on.”

He was further buoyed by the appointment of Eamon O’Shea as team manager. His father and O’Shea would have won county titles and a club All-Ireland together playing with Kilruane.

Hennessy himself and O’Shea would commute to and from Galway where they studied and lectured respectively during Liam Sheedy’s management, and O’Shea’s humanity, intelligence, knowledge and passion for the game and Tipperary inspired him.

Sure enough O’Shea inspired him some more by recalling him to the panel for 2013. He would feature in a number of pre-season games, including the Waterford Crystal final against Clare, holding his own, but then when training stepped up to two nights a week for the National League the knee flared once more. “I was close to him on the night he got the news that his knee was in trouble again,” says Cummins in Fields of Fire. “He had put huge rehab work in but he couldn’t turn or twist. He realised he was in huge bother that night and you could nearly cry for him.”

Hennessy himself naturally did cry; his knee just wasn’t able to sustain that intensity of training to hurl at that level; even a half-hour walk would cause considerable discomfort.

“You definitely went through a range of emotions,” he says. “But then you realised and accepted, ‘Okay, it’s not going to continue now. Does that leave you empty? Has your whole identity being wrapped up in being a Tipperary GAA player?’ But I was reared to be a lot more than that. And I started to reflect.

“On how the experience had helped shape me going forward, as maybe a coach, in my working life. And I found I could harbour no sense of bitterness. I felt, ‘Okay, you’ve been a bit unfortunate, you haven’t been able to do something you’d like to have done for a bit more, but what a time you’ve had’. I just had such a sense of being grateful.”

Something he read in an interview with O’Shea during the week resonated with him. The Tipp manager had used the word “Alive”.

Even when Tipperary lost the 2009 final and the 2013 qualifier to Kilkenny, O’Shea looked fondly on both occasions because each time he and his players had felt truly alive. For Hennessy, hurling with Tipp gave him the same feeling. He remembers the week before the 2010 All-Ireland being in a drill with Shane McGrath and a couple of others and the four of them zinging the ball to each other’s palm, totally in synch, a measure of the fluency and performance that was to come the following Sunday in Croker.

He particularly treasures one night one pre-season, your typical “horrible, real dirty, muddy, crappy night”. As the tackle bags were brought out, the team’s faithful masseur Mick Clohessy was videoing the session.

“We were just bouncing off tackle bags and bouncing off tackle bags and I remember Mick just shouting at us to keep it going, keep it going, to the point I think he put away the camera.

“It might have been a horrible night but out there working away in the lads, totally absorbed in the moment. And I remember just going home thinking, ‘That was brilliant’. That was really living.”

After Tipp there was more living to be done, though one of the first things he did subsequently was a nod to how sometimes life can end up. That April of 2013 he cycled from Limerick to Galway for the Cycle Against Suicide. He first came across the cycle watching the Late Late Show and it struck a chord with him because sadly for him he came across suicide long before that.

He’s written a blog about how his mother’s death affected him. “I believe to normalise suicide awareness or mental health you need a core wave of stories that come into the public so people can relate to them,” he says.

He was particularly interested in providing awareness of the support services that exist. After having the awful misfortune of having his mother pass away he at least had the fortune of availing of the Rainbows Ireland programme. Once a week for three months his father would bring him over to the community school in Borrisokane where he and other children would be facilitated by a kind and wise nun. Some of the kids would have had their parents separate, divorce, die. There they could tell their stories, in the most subtle and safest of ways. “I cannot overstate its importance in helping me,” he’d write in his blog.

Of course he still had difficulties. The following academic year he tried moving to an Irish-speaking college in Ring, Waterford but only lasted three weeks. The homesickness and sadness was too much.

So he moved back home and even when he’d leave home for secondary school and college and later work in the UK, home and dad was always there for him. Even on the cycle.

“I was just coming into Oranmore having really pegged it from Ennis to Gort, and I was really struggling when I saw someone 150 yards ahead of me. And I thought to myself, ‘Right, well I’ll make my way up to them anyway’. Lo and behold but who was it but my father, coming the other way. And for the next five miles we cycled arm in arm into Eyre Square and the college.

“We didn’t say anything but it said everything because for me he’s been my best friend as well as my dad.”

Dad has since remarried, a lovely woman called Denise, but the passing of Seamus’s mother remains with them. It’s why Seamus helped the Eire Óg Nenagh club with its healthy club campaign, speaking at an awareness night, it’s why he’s championed Pieta House and the Mind Our Men campaign.

He also promotes the GPA’s We Wear More Than Our County Colours campaign. Because players do. Including the Tipp lads.

He’s aware of how they’ve been criticised through the years for things that have happened on and off the field, but for him they are, as O’Shea has publicly said, “men of honour”. He’ll certainly never forget them.

This past 15 months work as a consultant for VISION Consulting has taken him all over the UK. Often you’re trying to get customer care teams to care about the customer and each other, people to talk openly and bluntly, if respectfully, to each other for the best interest of everyone.

You don’t always get it in work but he got it and saw it in a high performance setup like Tipp after they’d been knocked out of the 2010 championship by Cork.

That honesty stood to them later that summer and its real legacy is in how it impacts in their lives, such as his, to this day.

He’s still hurling with the club. Playing full-back. He’s maybe not quite as mobile as he was but he’s as committed and enthused as he ever was.

So, no, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself that he’s only a spectator tomorrow. Maybe the injury could have been avoided. Maybe he did play for too many teams when he was younger. But he’s not sure about that and he doesn’t regret any of it.

“It didn’t work out. But I’m okay with that. Because I’m happy knowing I did what I could to make it work. I tried and I broke down. I tried and I broke down. So you say, ‘Right, perhaps it’s not to be’, but it wasn’t my own behaviour or a lack of dedication that let me down. Plus, I have no right to be involved. I didn’t put in the work this year. The people who deserve the shot at the All-Ireland are the 30 players in there, the management team and backroom. They’re the guys who are in the bullpen. And I’d love if the boys can take this one down. They’ve been on a pretty rough roller coaster themselves the last few years.”

Just like with Hennessy, life for them hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine.

But like him they didn’t let it beat them down. And taking his lead, they’re seeing rainbows and sunshine again.


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