Hurling a better place with Eamon O’Shea

No match being an island, the only place any review of last Sunday from the losers’ perspective can begin is with another All Ireland semi-final. The 2012 All Ireland semi-final. Tipperary 1-15 Kilkenny 4-24. 

There has been no more embarrassing day for the blue and gold in living memory, perhaps not even in undead memory. This is the backdrop. This is the nadir from which Eamon O’Shea, now the former Tipp manager, started out.

They didn’t bring home the MacCarthy Cup under O’Shea? No, but they did come within six inches of doing so, and this in a county that long ago mislaid the habit of winning more than one All-Ireland per decade. They only managed one piece of silverware in nine trophy attempts? Yes, but they did reach two league finals and were unfortunate to lose one of them in extra-time.

The point is, none of this was ordained. After the horror of August 2012, Tipperary might have collapsed under the weight of their internal contradictions, bones broken for the next five years. Instead O’Shea stiffened their spine, righted the ship and steered it to calm waters. If it seems easy and obvious now there was nothing inevitable about it at the time.

There was, though, one inevitability on Sunday. Tipperary losing to opponents who fastened both hands on their windpipe and slowly throttled them into submission. That they came so close in a game that on the contours of the afternoon, they were scarcely entitled to win was the only surprise.

It was a facsimile of the replay against Kilkenny 11 months ago. Tipp out-hungered, outworked and – consequently and ultimately - outscored.

The argument has already been advanced that once again the Munster champions were spavined by the five-week gap. This is in danger of becoming, or being allowed become, too handy an excuse. A more accurate way of putting it is to say that their provincial campaign failed to prepare Tipp for the unique rigour of the challenge Galway would end up presenting.

Limerick calved in the semi-final. Waterford posed them a novel intellectual puzzle – grist to the O’Shea mill, of course – in the final without actually laying a glove on them. Upon which they ran into opponents with momentum, opponents with five championship outings behind them, opponents sucking the same diesel Waterford were sucking when derailing Tipperary in the 2008 All Ireland semi-final.

One often hears of a horse “running in snatches” during a race. Galway ran in snatches in the Leinster final but here they reached a high cruising speed after 10 minutes and maintained it for the next hour. The tempo proved too much for Tipp. Even in injury-time, the winners managed three shots at goal to their opponents’ none.

One area where O’Shea failed was in eradicating the either-or from Tipp’s output. Prevent them reaching the 20-point barrier and you’ll almost certainly beat them. Bizarrely for a team that rattled off 1-28 versus Kilkenny first time around last September, they’ve consistently failed to come within an ass’s roar of this baseline requirement for winning a championship fixture. Look at their losing totals on O’Shea’s watch: 1-15 and 1-14 against Limerick and Kilkenny respectively in 2013; 2-16 and 2-14 against the same two counties last year; and 3-16 on Sunday.

A signal moment? Perhaps what transpired 10 minutes into the second- half when pressure from a posse of rabid canines in maroon shirts forced Tipp into coughing up a line-ball under the Cusack Stand. The moment the line-ball was awarded it seemed like a moment freighted with significance. Then David Burke pointed to put Galway in the lead and ensure it was more than just an existential incident.

This is not 1995. A slew of definitelys and maybes attended Tipperary’s performance nonetheless. Definitely Padraic Maher was badly caught two minutes from the end after doing the hard bit. The Thurles man was trying to play with the kind of time and space Waterford afforded him; Galway weren’t as generous. But all his faux pas did was help draw Galway level. Five minutes remained, including injury-time, and Tipp would lead again.

Maybe Darren Gleeson could have been more accurate with a couple of his puck-outs. As Stephen O’Keeffe has discovered this summer, however, occasional imprecision is the cost of tailoring one’s clearances. Both Tipp and Waterford need to find a tall half-forward with a good paw.

Not to get all Mourinho/Eva Carneiro here but definitely Seamus Callanan, just up from a heavy fall, shouldn’t have been given the responsibility of the penalty. Maybe we were wrong about Tipp’s increased panel strength. The introduction of Shane Bourke at the interval looked odd at the time and odder still when he was substituted. Definitely Patrick Maher, normally so studious about placing his shots wide of the goalkeeper, could have done better with his chance in the second- half. Forget the 2012 semi-final for a moment; maybe the 2011 All Ireland final was the day reality truly intruded for this bunch. Suddenly skies had clouds, there wouldn’t be a four-in- a-row after all and life was less straightforward than it appeared. Things have never been quite the same since.

Yet, above and beyond all, maybe Tipp’s only real sin on Sunday was to encounter the Tribesmen on one of their regular-occasional fiesta afternoons, a la the 1993 All-Ireland semi-final. (Further queries to Kilkenny re the semi-finals of 2001 and 2005, not to mention the 2012 Leinster final.) It happens and there’s nothing one can do about it. There’s a technical term for this syndrome: It’s Galway.

If O’Shea may have been too esoteric for some tastes, the fault was ours rather than his. It is to be regretted that a man who once admonished journalists for drawing conclusions from limited evidence — a certain inhabitant of 221B Baker Street would have been proud — did not win an All-Ireland as manager.

“Structured randomness” is another phrase of his that will endure, the kicker being that the structure precedes and accommodates the randomness — and on Sunday, not for the first time, Tipperary’s rhythm section wasn’t solid enough to allow for individual improvisation by anyone bar Callanan. It is never a coincidence that Tipp suffer when Patrick Maher can’t get the sliotar up quickly and transform into a human arrow flying straight at the enemy’s heart.

O’Shea’s epitaph will not be written on water. He returned to a bunch of young men acutely in need of a guiding light and not only tried to make them better hurlers but to make them better, more rounded individuals. And he helped give us the All-Ireland epics of 2009-10, two thunderous league deciders and on September 7, 2014 an afternoon where hurling again pushed and prodded at the boundaries of its possibilities and barrelled through.

Hurling has been a better and infinitely more interesting place for Eamon O’Shea.


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