TODAY, for one evening only, he’ll emerge again from the shadows, a place he’s been quite happy to retreat to throughout his coaching life, away from the glare and the glam of the county game.
At heart, Eamon O’Shea has always been a man of the quiet fields, which is probably why he was asked back up to
the place with the biggest field of them all, Croke Park, and be the closing keynote speaker at the GAA’s annual coaching conference.
His topic is ‘Being A GAA Coach’. As simple and as extensive as that. For all the many other things he is and does, at his core, that is what he is: a GAA coach. It doesn’t define him but it’s central to him.
Long before he ever skipped into the lives of Brendan Cummins and Lar Corbett, he was sprinkling his magic dust in the local club field, just like many of the delegates that will hear him talk today.
It’s something he continued to do even he was managing Tipperary.
In 2016, he’ll again be down in the field with those Salthill U16s. “I think I could be even the manager now!” he says with a soft laugh. Either way, he’ll be coaching – just maybe not as you know it.
Today, different delegates will, like Cummins, find O’Shea different things at different times. Brilliant. Unconventional. Eccentric. Genuine. Genius. Madman. The sanest, most well-adjusted, man you’ll ever know.
The one thing he won’t be is bland. Lemmings, be warned.
“I did everything I could to help us get over the line but it just wasn’t to be for me,” says Eamon O’Shea. We’re sitting here from both the remove of NUIG’s airy new Institute for Lifecourse and Society building, and five months on from the last time you’d have seen him – and will ever see him – bounding along a sideline in Croke Park.
When Shane Maloney struck over the first point of his senior inter-county career in the closing seconds of an astonishing All Ireland semi-final, the Galway teenager did more than end Tipperary’s championship. His score ended Eamon O’Shea’s time as Tipperary manager. A period that had promised and often thrilled us so much had ultimately ended in further frustration. Failure? That’s what we’re fleshing out here. Yeah, it probably was. And yet, it wasn’t exactly that either.
“You have to separate two elements of sport – the cruelty of sport and the beauty of sport, and that beauty and that cruelty is that there are winners and losers. You look back over a period like the last three years and you say, well, you didn’t win an All Ireland, you should have won more All Irelands. I mean, they’re facts! And I think you have to acknowledge that. Because sport is sport and you go in and you want to win. That’s part of the pain and the beauty of it— the winners takes all here! That’s why we do it! That prospect, that chase! Sure there’s nothing like it!
“But then are you saying that you classify everything you did there in that period as being unsuccessful? No. Because we took a particular view on how the game should be played— the players and myself. We agreed with the view we wanted to play a particular way. And a lot of days we did and some days we didn’t. But we had a project! And I think the players still have a belief system that I know— not hope, but know— will carry them through within a period of one, two, three years.
“I’ll be blunt with you— for me, the winning of an All-Ireland is still something to behold whether I’m the manager or I’m not the manager. It [whether you’re the manager or not] does matter on the day you’re beaten. It’s painful. But for me the most important thing is there is a project there. I think the team is in a really good position.”
Each year he saw a progression. 2013 may have been over before it really began but he knew by the way the team had competed in that qualifier in Nowlan Park that they would seriously challenge in 2014 — they had fought that night, they just hadn’t flowed. You know how close and yet far away they were in 2014. In 2015, he feels they were even closer.
“I think 2015 was much better than 2014. I was really happy with 2015. The way we were training, our attitude. It was much easier for me as a manager. I suppose it was a bit of a surprise what happened to us in the All Ireland semi-final, but, you know, that sometime happens.”
He thinks the team probably peaked about four weeks after the Munster final. That fourth week the team was flowing, moving better than he had ever seen it. The fifth week he could detect slippage.
“You try to tweak it here or there, you reduce the volume of training, just try to hold them back a little.... And don’t forget, the opposition were on a serious roll. We always knew we were in a serious game. Then after it, sure you’re devastated. But... again, I say it. The project is the project! The project goes on!”
On one hand he feels it’s in really good shape; last year nine players started their first Munster final— and won it. And yet another part of him feels the project should be even further on. He could have done more. He should have done more.
“I probably went in naively,” he says with that rare humility and openness of his. “I had a view on how the game should be played when the game had moved on in the couple of years I’d been away. And that’s one thing you have to constantly assess. The game is evolving so quickly that you....
“I think I should have been better... I should have had more ideas. Just in terms of pushing it out... pushing it more... I would be thinking I should have done more. I don’t know how to explain it but to push their potential out further.... Yeah.”
And yet, in so many ways, that’s what he did. Look at how individual players grew under him, not just in his time as Liam Sheedy’s coach, but during his time as manager. In one season, Darren Gleeson went from championship debutant to an All Star. Cathal Barrett was another rookie up on the awards podium.
For years Seamus Callanan was in the doldrums. Now only one other forward outside of Kilkenny this decade has operated at such a height for two or more consecutive seasons – Lar Corbett, who attributes his own vein of form from 2009 to 2011 primarily to the influence of a “tall, skinny [coach] from Cloughjordan”.
And Bubbles. Look at what the game has in young John O’Dwyer.
“Sure look, Bubbles does things effortlessly,” says O’Shea. “But it’s technique. I didn’t develop his technique. I encouraged it and encouraged him but he already came with fantastic technique. The key is to be a little bit patient, allow him scope and allow difference within a team. Not everyone is going to be as technically brilliant as Bubbles. So you have to structure a team around that and allow him the flexibility to hurl as he can.”
A case in point. Last year’s Munster final. Tipp have had their noses in front for much of the day but little else, with Bubbles himself having little sniff of the ball for long periods. As the game enters its last quarter, O’Shea goes into O’Dwyer. Chats to him. More so, listens.
“It was Bubbles who suggested he come out the field. He felt he needed to get more into the game. I said ‘Okay. We’ll fill in there for you. Go with it.’ And he ended up getting a couple of points for us to clinch out the match.”
Communication. It’s the root of all coaching for O’Shea. It’s a big part of what has made him so good. It’s also why he feels in his last stint with Tipp he was maybe only so good.
“The frustrating bit of managing and coaching I find for me in particular is: Did I do enough? And I always felt I wanted more time. If I wanted to talk to you as a player, I needed a lot more time than I had. Especially when that’s my view of the world. And it’s just not mine. More and more in all codes you hear coaches talking about the importance of the player as a person. But it takes time to develop relationships. One of the difficulties of working in Galway is that you weren’t seeing the players every day.”
When he could find time, the results were spectacular. In O’Shea’s first championship game, Callanan missed two goal chances against Limerick and was duly taken off at half-time and left off the starting 15 the next day. Upon reflection, O’Shea was looking at it the wrong way. Callanan had carved out two goal chances. O’Shea would tell Callanan he had got it wrong: he should have stuck with him. As a coach, he says, you’ve to be selective about admitting when you get things wrong. Do it too often and it can be perceived as weakness. But at the right time it can be an astonishing display of strength. “Like everything else with people, whether it’s your own family or a work colleague, it’s about trust and confidence. That’s only built through support.
“What I’ll be saying [at the coaching conference] is you have to have a philosophy. And that philosophy has to be person-centred. But that philosophy is always tested in defeat. You have to be strong in terms of building that confidence, that resilience. Because it’s not a project for six months. It’s a project for something like three years where you can say ‘Yeah, you know what, no matter what happens, that player, that team, will be fine.’”
Last year when we were talking to Paudie Butler, the name of Eamon O’Shea cropped up. Butler was another coach who had been a player during the Tipperary famine years. That O’Shea was an intermittent figure in those years said more about Tipp then than O’Shea, Butler contended. “He was unbelievably quick, the fastest player in Ireland, but we didn’t have a system to fit him. If Eamon was playing now he’d be a multiple All Star.”
But what does O’Shea himself reckon? What would O’Shea the coach make of O’Shea the player?
The man himself pauses for a moment, then gives a blunt verdict.
“Well, I wouldn’t have picked him! Because he didn’t work hard.
“I was probably overly-concentrated on the skill side of things. I would have had a really strong sense of the team collective, I knew my role. But I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t work hard enough on my strength, my conditioning, on my hooking and blocking. And,” he laughs, “I always had other things on his mind...”
“Life. Study. But I learned an awful lot from reflecting on my own situation. If I had known then what I know now...” And again he smiles.
“But it’s hard to put yourself now in the mind of your 20-year-old self. I can only remember having a really good time. In hurling. At everything.”
He came across some enlightened coaches. Like Michael O’Grady, both with the Tipp minors and at UCD. “He allowed to us play with a little panache and freedom.”
Then closer to home in Kilruane MacDonaghs, Len Gaynor. Another huge influence who instilled in him the power of passion, but also, for all his traditional values, understood the importance of accommodating difference.
“Len and Kilruane would have accepted that I wasn’t as robust as other people. What I probably brought to the party was a little bit of unstructuredness. A bit more randomness. Back in the ‘70s if you moved from your own position without telling someone, there was nearly an inquiry. But I never thought of the world like that. My view was if I moved from there to here, that then created something there that was different. Around that time I was reading about Ajax and Rinus Michels and all these guys...”
Everywhere he was assimilating influences. Heading to Glenmalure Park to see Shamrock Rovers, school gyms all around Dublin to catch the first wave of American professional basketballers and be intrigued by their athleticism and movement and creativity.
“You’re looking at all these different things, but as a young fella you don’t what you’re really seeing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, you just have to let things settle for a few decades!”
His enquiring mind was also drawn to economics. He hadn’t studied it in school but it was what he wanted to do in college. For him, the discipline is much more than something cold and calculated, financial, numerical. It’s about philosophy. People. How to serve them better; not them serving the economy. It’s why he ended up specialising in the field of ageing, a topic he’s written over 15 books on.
His big interest now is the area of dementia and how we should set up society to support people with it. “That we don’t simply treat people as objects or as patients. That we treat people, irrespective of whether they are cognitively impaired or not.”
O’Shea has successfully campaigned for a national dementia strategy and sits on its implementation group. But, he stresses, you and I don’t have to wait on government to treat dementia sufferers with due respect.
“So a person with cognitive impairment walks into this room,” O’Shea motions, “and sits down in that chair there. You and I have a responsibility to engage with that person and their carer. In a strongly human way, rather than disengage. We have a responsibility to find the person within that person, even though it’s not immediately obvious.”
Find some commonality through smalltalk. Maybe sport. “You might say ‘Back when you were growing up, those Cork and Tipp teams, can you remember any of those fellas?’”
At the other end of the age spectrum, he’ll continue to connect with children, through hurling. He’s just a small part of the juvenile coaching section in Salthill, he insists, just as it was the same when he was managing Tipp. But there’s a project there too.
“A lot of people asked me would I get involved with this senior team and that senior team, but to me there was no alternative but to go back and work with young lads again.
“It’s brilliant at that age. Just to see something and someone grow is fantastic. Because failure is much more invisible. To try loads of different things in the glare of high-profile All-Ireland senior hurling, that’s tricky. At this level you can wander onto the side of the pitch at an U14 game and say ‘Well, what do you think of this? Have you tried this?’ Just something like how you hold your grip on the hurley, and how to relax your body with it, rather than being out there all tense.
“Look, I love winning matches. There’s nothing better than winning matches! But for the majority of us, whether it’s in life or sport, the majority of the time, we lose. Well, our last game of the year, more often than not we lose it. So, what do we do ahead of that? Well, you better be enjoying it and you better be believing in what you’re doing.
“So how do I deal with failure, if you want to call it that? Or rather, disappointment? Hey, I just stay in the now. I say ‘Well, what can I do now?’
“So I’m not sitting and moping here thinking last August Galway beat Tipperary. I don’t have the time! At the time it was what mattered. It was what I was fully engaged in at that moment. I’m just engaged in other things now.”
Still, the game itself, hurling, and coaching it, still engages and intrigues him. Last week, his work took him to Barcelona. One evening, he took in a game in the Camp Nou, the 6-0 demolition of Athletic Bilbao.
“You still found yourself as a coach trying to figure out, okay – so how are they so good? I spent most of that first-half watching Messi and what his movement is like. What Iniesta’s movement was like. If Iniesta was on the market, I’d buy him for Tipperary. Because this boy is selfless. He’ll always give you a line. He’ll always get you out of trouble. He’ll always just be there for the simplicity.
“Sometimes complexity is not the answer. Simplicity is the answer. The person who makes the game so simple, the more successful that coach can be. And that’s what we all strive for as coaches.”
So, he’s not through with the game, and the game’s not through with him?
“The game is in your head!” he says, rising to his feet. “Where does the game go? The game is in your head! All the time.” And then away he bounds. Off back to the rest of the world, yet still standing out from the crowd.