Soldiering for Treaty cause

An All Star in 2007, dropped in 2009, recalled in 2011 and then quitting inter-county scene at the age of 26, Andrew O’Shaughnessy is one of Limerick hurling’s greatest enigmas. He pulls no punches as he discusses his battle with multiple sclerosis and the vicious circle that surrounds the county team

Soldiering for Treaty cause

It wasn’t MS that scared Andrew O’Shaughnessy. He’s taken that in his stride since being diagnosed in 2010. No, it was the low blow he took playing for Kilmallock against neighbours Bruree in a south county league game last June that frightened the life out of him. The pain, you can imagine, was excruciating. The thought of what happened to Joe Quaid crossed his mind. Quaid lost a testicle in a challenge game against Laois in 1997. O’Shaughnessy was luckier, but marginally so. The injury, the result of a “bad belt”, still required surgery.

The relief was immense. The same couldn’t be said for his reaction to what happened directly after the incident. “The worst thing about it was we got a free 30 yards in front of the goals and the free-taker missed it!”

He smiles now because he can.

It’s really only on the field where he notices the disease, one which affects the ability of some parts of his nervous system to communicate with one another. The army captain’s annual fitness tests have rarely wavered since he joined as an 18-year-old, but there are times when he feels hurling was a simpler game.

“It’s frustrating because you’re doing things that bit slower. I don’t know whether that’s age or MS but I’m putting it down to age! Obviously, it isn’t but I’m doing basic things wrong which I shouldn’t.”

It was his sister in late 2009 who first noticed he was slurring his speech. She suggested it might be Bell’s palsy and told him to get it checked out. It meant missing out on a trip to Chicago with his then girlfriend, now wife, Eimear. The worst was waiting for the phone call and then the battery of tests.

He had been told by medics they were 80% sure it was MS and an MRI scan in March 2010 confirmed it. His doctor Peter Boers told him not to google it. He never has, nor visited any of the recommended websites. His attitude to it has been a relaxed one. “It’s a big life-changer, or so people say, but if you think about it too much, it’s going to affect your life. I’m not saying it’s the right way but it’s working for me, to put it in the back of my mind.

“If you think about anything in life too much, it will start to affect you. I take medication when I have to take medication.”

Contrary to some opinion, MS never played a factor in O’Shaughnessy surprisingly stepping away from Limerick at the age of 26 in 2011. He won’t confirm any conspiracy stories because there’s nothing to confirm.

He was hurt by Justin McCarthy’s decision to drop him along with a dozen players the previous season but the 2007 All Star had simply lost his spark for it.

“I was obviously delighted to get back in but at the time I was doing a course of work and it was quite physically demanding for five weeks. When you find yourself missing five weeks of inter-county training, you’re so far behind. That was in March and it put me back two months. Realistically, there was too much time to make up. I didn’t feel like I had the drive at the time. I was at that stage in life where I was getting married and inter-county hurling just didn’t feel right for me. I prefer to not do it at all than do it half-arsed.”

Then manager Donal O’Grady gave him some space before attempting a few times to convince him back into the panel.

O’Shaughnessy wasn’t for moving. “I was half-encouraged but then at the same time, I’m quite decisive. I’m a quiet person, I don’t say much but when I make my mind up, I’m quite certain with what I do.”

That’s apparent when he speaks of Limerick’s annus horribilis that was 2010 and how, in later 2009, McCarthy took a scalpel to a team that had reached an All-Ireland final three years previous.

From the outside looking in, it appeared mad and it was just as crazy inside.

O’Shaughnessy had asked a few questions of McCarthy about preparations and it appeared he was sized up by the manager as a potential troublemaker.

“So many little things were going wrong and when the whole thing broke, they couldn’t be fixed straight away. Dare I say it, the county board stood up and said, ‘stop this (strike) and we’ll do this’. We’re the only county to get a strike wrong. County players wouldn’t play and normally county boards go with the players because they are your ‘A’ team. Not backing them takes a lot of guts or stupidity, but that’s what happened.

“It shouldn’t have happened, it could have been solved with a simple phone call. People getting dropped and not getting acknowledged? I was playing for 10 years. It didn’t bother me at the time because I had bigger things going on but I was playing all the Championship matches that year, I was playing for Munster that year, and then suddenly I wasn’t good enough to be on a 30-man panel?

“I can say I’m not bitter but there is some sort of bitterness there, but it doesn’t bother me.”

Seeing players like Stephen Lucey being hung, drawn and quartered in the local media disappointed O’Shaughnessy. Described as a “cancer” and never allowed to forget he revealed his favourite drink as Bacardi and coke in a Munster SHC match programme, the dual-playing doctor was depicted as the justification for McCarthy’s cull.

O’Shaughnessy doesn’t drink or smoke. There were others like Niall Moran and Donie Ryan who were the same. He saw how his team-mates who did enjoy a pint abstained for months on end. But their public perception couldn’t have been more different.

“There was this conception out there: ‘oh, they’re a drinking team’. That got attached to us and people latched onto that too easy. When you lose a match and looking back where we went wrong, people would automatically go ‘drink, I saw him out drinking’. The truth was he was out drinking a pint of water or a pint of Cidona. They’d say: ‘Oh no, he was drinking cider’. That happened to me a couple of times. I never touched a drink in my life, but that got attached to us and we just couldn’t shake it. The only way to shake it was to win and we didn’t.”

“A waste of talent” is O’Shaughnessy’s blunt assessment of Limerick’s 2000-2002 hat-trick of All-Ireland U21 titles won under Dave Keane.

“When you win three All-Ireland U21s, there are no argument for saying you don’t have the hurlers. You have the nucleus of a team. Say you have 10 players per year, that’s definitely 30 players up to the standard. The standard isn’t the huge difference, it’s the confidence. It was wasted.”

hat glittering era in which O’Shaughnessy, as a 16-year-old substitute in 2001 and starter the following year, did manifest itself in 2007 with eight of that team that lost to Kilkenny having featured under Keane. The magic of the trilogy with Tipperary and the semi-final win over Waterford when O’Shaughnessy sparkled will live long as memories but he stresses they are only that.

“You have to talk about the final that we lost, and lost heavily. There’s no point in saying we got to the final against Kilkenny. Yes, it was great getting there but we didn’t win. While it was a good year, it still ended up fruitless. The year ended up the same way every year I was involved with Limerick: every Limerick player ended up with nothing.”

The longer the classes of 2000, ‘01 and ‘02 went without graduating with success at senior level, the more O’Shaughnessy felt those triumphs were held against them.

“In a way, everyone says ‘Oh, we can build on that team for the future’ but the future of inter-county hurling is now. You can build for the future, plan U14, U15, U16, that’s all well and good but at a certain time in life, the future has to be now.

“You can’t keep talking about 1973. As great an occasion as it was, what about the All-Irelands of ‘80, ‘94, ‘96 and 2007? 1994 and ‘96 were fantastic chances. We have to stop talking about 1973. As disrespectful as that might sound, you have to be selfish and work on the 2014 team and say these are our plans and goals. The first goal is, I assume, to beat Tipp. The second goal is to retain the Munster title and third to win an All-Ireland. If you say anything else, you’re only lying. If you don’t have those goals when push comes to shove, you’re not going to push.”

O’Shaughnessy despairs a little when he sees the same mistakes being made in Limerick. In the run-up to the 2007 final, the players were appearing seemingly at the opening of envelopes. Then similar events happened prior to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. “You can’t begrudge a hurler that but it has to kept in check, a certain amount of it. It should be limited, not three weeks ahead of the match. It can be very hard to say no but players have to be told to say it.”

They were run-of-the-mill operational issues but on both occasions those public appearances were thrown back at the players as the reason for their demise. Like drink, there doesn’t seem to be an acceptance in Limerick that their team weren’t good enough on the day. Among some of the ‘73 stalwarts, there was a sense McCarthy’s cull had to happen as too many managers, and not enough players, had paid the price of the county’s failings.

“History repeats itself over and over in life in general, and with Limerick definitely. The first port of call is to “blame the players, blame the players” and out of the last number of occasions that there has been any issue, I can nearly say you could only blame the players just once. Once.”

Which was? “I would say when I first came onto the panel. Dave Keane was very harshly treated. He was after guiding the U21s to three All-Ireland titles. He had the ability and the quality and the players but he was gone way too fast. That was the one time the players could have taken a bit of blame. Other times, the only blame you could throw at the players was they were trying to do things right.”

Learning that his friend and Limerick captain Donal O’Grady received hate mail after last year’s All-Ireland semi-final appalled O’Shaughnessy. It didn’t surprise him, though. “The criticism comes down fast in Limerick, unfortunately. I can see people criticising and they might think it’s constructive but saying ‘a player shouldn’t be playing’, ‘he’s not up to the standard’, ‘he’s useless’... while it might be right in certain cases not just in Limerick but in every county, it doesn’t give you an entitlement to say it. Especially with the internet being so popular now that everyone has an opinion. That’s all well and good but you have to keep those opinions in check at times.”

The parallels between Limerick hurling and Mayo football aren’t lost on him. “Mayo more so are getting there. At least they’re giving themselves a chance. They’re still coming back year after year despite getting knocked. We get there, we get knocked and it takes us five, six, 10 years if even to get back to any sort of standard with the chance of winning. The similarities that are there won’t stop until one of us wins it. It’s no good for either county.

“That’s why Sunday is such a big game because normally when Limerick have a good year the following season when they have to build on it, we just go straight back to old things, and unfortunately it’s looking that way again with what happened to Donal O’Grady.”

If he apportions blame for O’Grady’s exit, he figures it was the county board’s fault “60-40”. But he doesn’t understand why O’Grady returned to Limerick in the first place. “He’s a fantastic coach, no doubting, his credentials state that but he had his time. He said he would stay for a year and I respect his honesty in saying that. Then coming back after Munster he was on a hiding to nothing, I think.”

It was a special moment last July when O’Shaughnessy and Eimear joined club-mate Graeme Mulcahy among the thousands festooned in green and white on the Gaelic Grounds pitch.

He is younger than five of the Limerick and Cork men who saw action that day but he wasn’t bowled over by what-ifs. “There will always be regrets when you commit your life to it and you don’t get the reward but you’re still happy to see club-mates and county-men doing it. The only disappointing thing is at the end of the year they didn’t push on. It’s like going to Everest and stopping 100 metres short and saying ‘This is great, we got there’. But you didn’t actually, you had another 100m to go. It’s not that far, just an extra push.”

Kilmallock satisfies his hunger for hurling. Truth be told, it always has. He’s coaching the minors and sees himself taking it further when he’s finished up playing. The 2010 and ‘12 senior county titles gave him sustenance but not enough. Never enough. “Every year I play for Kilmallock I expect to win a county. You can call that arrogance but I say confidence, from the structures we had in place before with Bord na nÓg. We had fine individuals coming through year-in, year-out. It’s kind of stopped now since Bord na nÓg has stopped.”

From a county perspective, the progress being made by this year’s Harty Cup finalists Ardscoil Rís and Doon offer him hope — “they need to be in the semi-finals and finals every year. The flipside is a good few of Ardscoil are from Clare as well.”

If he’s remembered by that generation as a hurler who endeavoured but failed, he won’t mind. As long as someone learns from it. “I achieved nothing but I’m happy with my input. I gave it 100% every time. I’ve no regrets from my point of view but regrets in the grander scheme of things we didn’t represent ourselves well all the time on the field.”

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