Liam Sheedy: Keeping all the balls in the air

This morning, the chairman of the national hurling review forum will be out coaching Portroe’s Under 16 Camogie team, encouraging each and every player — his daughter included. "In this country, we knock too much," says Tipperary’s All-Ireland-winning coach Liam Sheedy.

It’s changed his life, winning that All-Ireland, but in other ways, so much about Liam Sheedy remains the same.

He’d hardly be sitting on the board of the Irish Sports Council, overseeing the funding of high performance sport, if he wasn’t on the right side of the scoreline on that stunning Sunday in September 2010. Yet he would maintain that he was already in the realm of high performance sport, managing the Tipperary senior hurlers, that that was the height those guys were operating at in those three years leading up to Lar’s three goals.

He probably wouldn’t have been asked to chair the national hurling review forum either if he hadn’t the status of being an All-Ireland winning manager. Or be a pundit on The Sunday Game.

But missing out on ultimate glory or those gigs would have hardly stopped him going to games or remarking on them; he’d just have had a less influential, smaller audience, that’s all.

He still coaches. Including in Portroe. As he says: “I’ll never be above Portroe.” Including coaching their U16 camogie team. Especially the U16 camogie team. Every weekend, either on a Saturday or Sunday morning, he’s out there on the field, guiding his daughter Aisling and her team-mates. There, he’s not some hotshot All-Ireland-winning manager. There, they don’t care that he’s spent the week in Dublin mixing with bigwigs and suits from the Sports Council or the day job with the Bank of Ireland. There, he’s Liam. Aisling’s dad. That’ll ground you.

There’s no getting away from it though, his life has changed since September 2010, whatever about because of it. Dublin and one of its hotels hasn’t exactly become a second home because it’s just not home, but it sees him as much as if not more than Portroe and the family do over the course of a typical week. Four days in every seven he has to be in the capital. Being the national head of sales and revenue for one of the biggest banks in the land demands it. It demanded he step down as manager of the Tipperary senior team. You just couldn’t do both.

It was a wrench, having to say farewell to such a special group of people (“To get a chance to work at that level, in that environment, is not an experience you can get anywhere”) but in closing that door, so many others opened up. Being a former All-Ireland-winning manager gave him both the standing and the time to do other things.

The work with the Sports Council intrigues him. Every two months, he sits on the board alongside the likes of chairman Kieran Mulvey, chief executive John Treacy, former sports minister Bernard Allen and John Maughan to review the funding and overall state of Irish sport.

It’s opened his eyes to the whole spectrum of sport: its grassroots, its elite. Next month, they’ll meet in Limerick which will be hosting the upcoming Irish Special Olympics. He also sits on a sub-committee of the Sports Council with its high performance director Paul McDermott and the Irish Institute of Sport’s equivalent, Gary Keegan. Their goal is simple but not easy: get more people participating and then on the podium.

He’s spent quite a bit of time in Keegan’s company and with Irish boxing’s Billy Walsh. A couple of months ago they were three of the leading speakers at a coaching masterclass series in DCU.

“The two of them are exceptional at what they do. You look at what Ireland are doing in some sports like rugby and boxing in particular and we’re punching above our weight. They have this capacity to cherish the moment and then move quickly on to the next hurdle, the next challenge. One thing I’ve found is that winners are never happy with what they have and those two are winners.”

It’s that admiration for continuously reviewing and improving which makes Sheedy also a suitable chairman of the national hurling review forum. Last week its 10 members met in Croke Park, with an open canvas and open minds.

“Any exceptional organisation is always looking for ways to fine-tune itself, improve. And Liam O’Neill being a passionate hurling man wants to make sure the game continues to prosper. Hurling — and camogie — are in a really good place but how do we maintain that, improve on that for five, seven, 10 years down the line?”

He stresses they won’t be making change for the sake of change. Or that he and the committee won’t be imposing their views on the rest of the hurling world. They are more interested in hearing the views of the hurling world first. He’s expecting a launch sometime next month where they unveil a public online survey, along the lines of Eugene McGee’s football task force.

You put it to him that there’s a danger then that by being followers more than leaders, they could be tied to conventional thinking. Conventional thinking hasn’t served developing — if you can call them that — counties when it comes to hurling. He insists though the right balance will be found.

“We wouldn’t have been asked to do if the job if we weren’t asked to bring some leadership to it too. It’s about being able to channel people’s views into a common format, presenting it to the relevant people and saying ‘Well, what do you think, yes or no?’”

So what does he make of Tipperary, post-Sheedy? His answer is typical Sheedy: diplomatic, reasoned, optimistic, somewhat philosophical even. He doesn’t talk like others do of a legacy mishandled; for him it’s all too soon to say. This year will reveal much of the answer and he feels this year could be a very good one for his native county.

“In fairness to Tipp, they haven’t gone away. They were awesome in 2011 in Munster, then lost an All-Ireland final by four points to the best team that ever played the game. Then they won Munster again. Okay, they didn’t win another All- Ireland but getting to the summit is a lot more difficult than people think. While hurling may not have the volume of contenders that football has, it’s still a very competitive landscape.

“We could just as easily have come eighth in 2010 as first, just as Tipp last year could just as easily have come first as eighth. In 2010 we happened to get a favourable enough draw early on in the backdoor that helped us build up some momentum and then we turned it around in the last three minutes against Galway, otherwise we were gone. It’s that marginal. If the [qualifier] draw had worked out different last year and Clare found themselves in Nowlan Park and Tipperary were playing Laois, it most likely would have been a completely different summer for both Clare and Tipp. To get over the line, you need almost everything to be going right. But as an active Tipp supporter, I’d be very happy with the space the team finds itself in now.

“They had to endure a tough start [to the league]. Being in that pressure situation of having to get a result against Dublin and then jumping that hurdle was massive for them. I’d consider Dublin to be in the top four in the country so getting over that really built confidence. Beating Cork built some more, then getting over Clare built some more. I think that run of tough games, great wins leaves them in a stronger position than they arrived into the league final last year. And I think learning from last year’s league final and the fact they didn’t really drive on from that game will stand to them this year.

“I’d still be in touch with a lot of the players. You don’t give three years of your life and share intimate secrets with them and work your socks off for each other without developing a bond that will outlast your time together. And from talking to them I know the ambition is still there. I’m delighted to see that they’re in such a strong position now.”

What also fuels his positivity in Tipp is the man who now stands where he once stood. Eamon O’Shea, the former coach, current manager, is someone Sheedy describes as “an exceptional coach, but more than that, an exceptional man”. It’s not just O’Shea’s knowledge and passion for the game that stirs players but his sincerity and humility.

“There’s not an ounce of an ego to be seen next to near that man,” says Sheedy. “He’s really good to connect with people. He just has this ability to bring people on the journey with him and get them to really buy into what he’s overall trying to achieve. To me if there’s a man to take Tipp to major honours, it’s this man. I’d have total belief in him.”

It’s not lost on him though that there are other sides with serious intent this year. Kilkenny are smarting just as much from last year as Tipp.

“I’d say Brian [Cody] is very happy with where he has the squad. Last year I don’t think they needed to travel the backdoor with the age profile of their team. I’m not sure if in 2010 we had to play sides as good as Kilkenny, Waterford and Cork, we would have reached the All-Ireland semi-final, let alone won the final. But this year that freshness is back and going by the work rate against Galway in the second half of the league semi-final, the hunger is still there as well.”

And then there’s Clare. He’s become a real keen observer of hurling in the county. Firstly, he admires their style of play. “I think they’re playing to their strengths — skill levels and movement. I would view Clare and Cork as out-and-out hurling teams.” Secondly, he’s been coaching in the county for the last couple of years.

Newmarket-on-Fergus are one of the famed clubs in the county, leading the county’s roll of honour by a distance. Their problem was they went over 30 years without adding to it. Even though since the mid-noughties they had a group of players who had the club back contending for titles, they couldn’t close the deal. In the summer of 2012, Sheedy was drafted in as an advisor, being a close friend and work colleague of team selector Tom McNamara. By October they were county champions for the first time since 1981.

Sheedy will downplay his own role. He’ll point to the great work done at underage and the series of U21 titles that crop of players had won, the couple of county senior finals they had contested and learned from, the players’ exceptional work ethic for a club team. But speak to the players and his fellow management team and they’ll talk about the Sheedy Effect.

On his first night down in Newmarket, he was able to refer to all 34 players by their name.

Imagine going to the time and trouble of that before ever setting foot in the place. On the training ground he eliminated all putdowns, insisting on only positivity and absolute intensity.

And in the dressing room they say he was simply electric. Before the county final he forcefully told and showed them they were different animals to the sides that had lost county finals and semi-finals in previous years. And that’s what they were that October, devouring Cratloe by 10 points.

He was back last year as well, where they got back to a county final, only to lose narrowly to Sixmilebridge but win a third consecutive Clare Cup (league). This year he’s still involved as well, but less frequently, taking maybe a training session every third weekend or so. “To me, there’s nothing like being out on a hurling pitch,” he says, “and being with a group of lads who’ll give it everything.”

The same autumn, Newmarket returned to the big time, Portroe sampled some of it too. Again Sheedy was a stand-in coach, helping out his brother and team manager John. And again they had a landmark win, winning their first-ever North Tipp senior championship, beating the mighty Toomevara in the final. Again he highlights the input of others. The players working harder than he ever had before. Fr Seamus Gardiner being one of the selectors. They even had Ger Loughnane pop in and talk to them, the Clare man being a former student of Fr Gardiner’s and now a colleague and friend of Sheedy’s from their work in the Sunday Game studio. But again, the Sheedy Effect was at play.

The following spring in the Aviva Stadium, sports junior minister Michael Ring presented 11 volunteers from across 10 different sports a special award for their contribution to the community. Sheedy was one of the recipients, nominated by his club for all his work throughout the grades. It epitomised the wonder of both the GAA and Sheedy: here was a coach that had operated at the highest level back helping out at the grassroots level.

He still does. Every Saturday or Sunday morning he’s out coaching that U16 camogie team. They may only play 12-a-side, they may be only kids, but to him in so many ways it’s like when he coached Tipperary. He still applies some of the principles he gives in all the talks he’s given over the last few years.

Like “Encourage, encourage, encourage. They don’t hear enough of it. In this country we knock too much. If they get bollicked out of it for missing the ball, they’ll turn off the game. Shine a light on what’s right. There’ll be enough people to tell them they messed up without you joining in.

“Pádraig Harrington has said, ‘If you want to be good, make no mistakes. If you want to be great, make plenty of them.’ If you’re constantly harping on them, the kids can nearly hear your voice before they even go for the ball.”

Or that every coaching job is a privilege. It’s a word he uses a lot, whether it’s sitting on the board of the Sports Council, managing Tipp, or — especially — coaching the U16 girls. “It’s a privilege to be entrusted with a team,” he often tells coaches. “If you just swan in late and start verbally abusing kids, you’re not treating it as a privilege.”

And above all, it has to be fun. “To me it’s a question of when they go back out to the car an hour later they can say ‘I really enjoyed that, I can’t wait for next week.’ To me those are the conditions that you’re trying to create, whether it’s the girls, or the Portroe senior team or the Tipp senior team.”

Does he ever see himself returning to managing in the big time? “It’s a question that’s thrown my way regularly. I suppose never say never. If you want to do senior inter-county management it really has to be your number one priority with little distraction. A lot of things would need to happen for that to be my situation. But I won’t lie to you, I love the buzz of it.”

It’s one of the reasons why he went into TV punditry. A couple of friends told him he’d miss the rush of being involved at the top end of the sport and the next best thing would be to be around it, commenting on it; he needed something like that to help feed the adrenaline withdrawal, “keep me sane even,” he smiles.

But there’s other ways he gets his kicks.

“I’m fortunate that my energy levels are quite high. Whether it’s an hour in Newmarket on a Saturday morning, two hours in Abbotstown at a Sports Council meeting, 10 hours working on sales and revenue in Bank of Ireland, two hours in Croke Park with the hurling forum or down in the field in Portroe with the girls, it’s all about enjoying it. I never go into any of those things thinking, ‘God, I’m dreading this.’ I’m lucky that anything I do I just thoroughly enjoy it.”


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