Eamon O’Shea reduces the challenge of preparing a team for an All-Ireland final to its basics.
What does it involve?
“A puzzle. You’re trying to see if you can get a performance from the team; you’re not trying to see whether you win or not, just can you get a performance from the team on the day.”
The cerebral Tipperary boss acknowledges Kilkenny have had the upper hand in recent encounters between the counties.
“It wouldn’t be an issue really except that you know we didn’t win the games. It’s not an issue, given the way I think about the game.
“I know if we perform, we’ll be really competitive. The result may fall one way or the other but I’m not losing any sleep over it.”
That said, he concedes that a loss in the qualifiers could have been the end for him and his management team.
“It could have been the end against Galway, I realise that, but (it’s not bad) being in a place where you know you’re working really hard and everyone is trying to achieve the same goal even though things aren’t going with you.
“I’m here trying to do a job. I came back to try and do a job and if it didn’t go the way I wanted it, I wouldn’t have felt any less a person.
“I tried everything, really tried hard and if it didn’t work, it didn’t work and somebody else would have taken it on. When you know your team are trying, really working for you, then it’s a really good place to be.”
An All-Ireland final is the best of places to be, of course. O’Shea feels there’s more in his charges. “There has to be more improvement in the sense we didn’t move the ball I wanted them to move, or anywhere near it. That’s the key to improvement.
“The backs played really well. Our forwards, on their own admission, weren’t happy (with their performance) because they know it before anyone else. They don’t need me to go into a room and say things didn’t work today.
“They’ll tell me first in terms of what they expect. I think the big improvement for us this year has been that the players are more aware of what they have to do. There’s been some great learning for them.”
O’Shea offers some background to Sunday’s game from the recent past: “To me, the 2009 All-Ireland final was a tremendous game. It remained a tremendous game, whether we won or lost.
“Even five years later, we know it was some game to be involved in.
“Equally, the qualifier in Kilkenny last year, that to me was outstanding, in terms of being an experience.
“To be in Kilkenny and to see the passion and everything around it, even though we lost that game, there was a sense afterwards that we had participated in something special.
“While it was a shortened year for us, you did look at it and say ‘yeah, we were alive’.
“There’s nothing like being in a big event for that period. Sometimes, even when you lose, you can be aware you’re part of something special and playing against a special team in a special place is special for hurling. There’s something amazing about that, though of course you’d like to win.”
O’Shea feels separating the occasion from the game is easier if it’s a voluntary activity “Maybe if I was professional, it would be more difficult for me” — but accepts the ground rules.
“The enjoyment of the game, for me, is paramount. I understand that as manager, I’m expected to compete and win. I understand the rules of the game here.
“But I also understand that when you go to a game against Kilkenny, in an All-Ireland final or down in Nowlan Park, it’s a special hurling occasion. And you can enjoy that at some level at some stage afterwards.
“You don’t enjoy the result (if you lose), you’re devastated. But you can say ‘that was a tremendous experience’ and say ‘to be part of something like this, not personally but for the team and the tradition, is something extraordinary’, and the game is everything, ultimately.”
It’s critical to his approach.
“It has to be fundamental. Why else would we try to be the best we can be? I know the result is terribly important, but to me the process of what happened in the past year has also been good.
“We’ve grown as a team, grown as a unit, our trust has grown, our hurling needs to come up a bit, I’m not happy with our hurling. But where we’ve been to has been a good experience for everybody, at the end of this. The result will determine how you’re remembered, in a sense, but I don’t care. I know what has happened here. I know I’ve worked with a really good group. That’s what matters to me.”
Still, even kids want to win...
“Of course they do, and their parents especially,” he says.
“They all want to win. You try to talk to a group of lads after losing — and I’ve had some significant losses, after significant cricket scores — you stand around the sideline and try to explain ‘well, we didn’t win today, but I’m sure we’ll do better the next time’.
“There are certain values associated with sport, especially for children, it (the attitude) has improved a little bit in the last couple of years. There is more publicity towards people having a better attitude but I think it’s important for sport and important for the values that people have.
“It goes down to letting kids enjoy their game, let kids have fun games and mini games and get people involved. Just having a fun element has to be good.”
There are different challenges when you coach kids, of course.
“Kids don’t like anything that’s over-structured, if you see a bunch of kids, they’ll start a match without you being there, and suddenly you come along and start putting out cones and they think ‘I have to run from A to B, this must be the way it is’.
“Whereas if you let them play... football is very easy to manage in a small space but in hurling, you just need space. You could organise a football session on top of this table but you can’t organise a hurling session on this table, and therefore if you try, you’re going to change the game fundamentally.”
The fundamental issue — enjoyment — hasn’t changed, he says.
“Not for us. We really enjoy what we do. We enjoy the games, we enjoy the training pitch, we do work very hard to get where we are. I certainly wouldn’t feel it in Tipp the enjoyment is gone out of the game. Lads come and try to enjoy what they’re doing.”
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