Christy O'Connor: Eamon O'Shea determined to lead Tipp to the All-Ireland they crave
During a training game one evening in Thurles last week, a ball drifted inside the 20-metre line which goalkeeper Darren Gleeson came out to collect.
Gleeson appeared to have time and space before Lar Corbett suddenly appeared out of nowhere and flicked the ball to the net.
Everybody else was shaking their heads. Where did he come from? Corbett has always had that X-factor but everyone else outside Tipp could have been asking the same question when Corbett appeared for the second half of the Munster final? Where did he come from?
Corbett hadn't featured all season. A knee injury had kept him out of the league campaign. He only returned to collective training with Tipp in late April. There was talk that he would play no part in the championship but Corbett was flying and Eamon O'Shea threw him in.
Corbett only made six plays but he had an impact; he scored one point, set up another and was fouled for a converted free. Just as importantly, Corbett's off-the-ball running opened up space in Waterford's defence.
O'Shea and Corbett have always had a good relationship but Corbett was only considered for duty when his form was right.
For years, O'Shea was accused of being too loyal to the older crew but Corbett is now the last of them still on board. Eoin Kelly, Brendan Cummins, Paul Curran, John O'Brien have departed. Others have moved on, or been moved to the margins, and a new team is now moving forward.
"The influx of new players have really helped this year," says Nicky English. "The team was a bit static for a few years but this is definitely Eamon O'Shea's team now."
The construction has taken time. O'Shea did give opportunities to new players against Limerick in the 2013 Munster semi-final (his first match in charge) but when Tipp squared up to Kilkenny in a do-or-die qualifier a month later, returning for some of his more experienced and hardened warriors was understandable for the bearpit of Nowlan Park.
An early-season exit still seemed to pave the path for a squad overhaul in 2014 but only a handful of fringe players were let go. Most of the 16 new players brought into the squad got game-time during the Waterford Crystal Tournament but in Tipp's opening two league games, only one debutant started.
The threat of relegation during the 2013 and 2014 league campaigns restricted O'Shea's hand but as the 2014 season progressed, Tipp began to forge a new identity. New faces emerged. Cathal Barrett, James Barry and Niall O'Meara broke through. Darren Gleeson, Kieran Bergin and John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer firmly established themselves. O'Shea handed Seamus Callanan greater responsibility and he flowered into Tipp's marquee forward. And crucially, the golden minor crop of 2006-'07 took greater ownership of the team.
"Eamon was undecided in 2013," says Eoin Kelly who retired at the end of last year. "Maybe he didn't find the characters that he was looking for that season but he made up his mind in 2014 to go with other fellas and he found new leaders. There has been a big turnover in the panel. There has been a good transition and it has proven to be a success. I think Eamon has been very fair in how he has reinvented the team."
Given the situation O'Shea walked into in 2013, he was bound to show loyalty to the older crew who had served him so well as coach between 2008-'10. It also took him time to adjust to the transition from coach to manager. The players desperately wanted O'Shea back in 2013 but the risk with such expectation was that the players would see him as a panacea to all Tipp's ills. In 2013, Tipp looked like a team obsessed with recreating 2010 and it didn't work.
"I think it took Eamon a year to fully understand the management side of things," says Kelly. "He was going back to lads who had done the business for him in 2010 but there was so much damage done after the 2012 Kilkenny game (All-Ireland semi-final hammering) that it was going to take 18 months for the team to really get up and running again. That defeat took a lot out of us all."
Tipp narrowly lost a league final to Kilkenny in 2013. They lost to Limerick and Kilkenny in the championship by just one point but O'Shea said in early 2014 that Tipp "were too mechanical" in their hurling throughout 2013. Freedom of expression was missing but once they started losing league games in 2014, the heat really came on.
By the time they met Galway in last year's qualifier, careers and the legacy of the group was on the line. Although Tipp had been very competitive in every championship game under O'Shea, never losing by more than one score, they were in danger of being labelled chokers and serial underachievers unless they started winning tight games.
After winning that match, Tipp took off. "I find that with managers who come in new, it takes at least 18-24 months to put your full stamp on it," says Kelly. "It takes a manager into their second or third year to really get into their rhythm. I find the same with their backroom team, especially with your strength and conditioning coach. Eamon is in his third year now and the team has evolved nicely. Mentally and physically, I think the team are in a great place now."
Last year's run to the All-Ireland final restored confidence. The team regained their identity again but the side has evolved even more this year. Michael Breen, Ronan Maher, Bill Maher and John McGrath appeared more as the league progressed. Three of those four got game-time against Limerick while Breen and Ronan Maher started against Waterford. So did Jason Forde, while two more of last year's U-21s, John Meagher and Barry Heffernan, have also been part of O'Shea's plans.
Although Tipp didn't qualify for the league final, compared to O'Shea's first two seasons, the squad has looked more stable than ever this year. On occasions, there were discipline issues in the squad. Tipp might have got to this point quicker if O'Shea had left some blood on the floor but he has gradually developed a harder edge. There is always a case for staggering departures to provide sufficient leadership and experience but a new team is now moving forward.
"I went back last year to play, if not to start, to at least get 15 or 20 minutes here and there," says Kelly. "I'd be disappointed with that but you knew Eamon was running with the younger guys. Look, when you reap the rewards for that approach, which Tipp are now, you can't have any complaints.
"Corner-backs now are like sprinters. Some of them should nearly be going to the Olympics. Some of the quickest players on the Tipp panel are corner-backs.
"Around the middle-third, you need lads with pace coming in getting on the breaking ball. Tipp have loads of guys like that now. There are plenty of young fellas. The more of them they throw in, the better."
Five of the 2012 All-Ireland minor-winning team were part of the 26 against Waterford. That number would have swollen to six if Colin O'Riordan hadn't chosen football ahead of hurling. Only six of the starting team against Waterford were under 25 but there is still a sense that this Tipp team are on a new path.
"I'm definitely not going to comment on saying it's going to be my last season or that it's my last hour, or maybe that I had my last hour," Corbett told Tipp FM in May. "I see the likes of these young lads coming and it gives me a warm feeling that Tipperary are in a good place. I'd only love to hand it over to these lads because these lads are coming. And they're coming like a train."
Nine players won Munster senior medals for the first time in July. Only four of the starting team started the 2010 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny.
"Things have evolved a little bit over the last number of years," says O'Shea. "A lot of the older players helped that happen, even some of the lads who have retired now, and brought that along. It takes a while to build up that level of experience and know-how to enable you to win big matches."
O'Shea will walk away from the job at the end of this championship but he has never been caught up by time or dates. A professor of economics in NUIG, O'Shea is also an epidemiologist who specialises in ageing. O'Shea was instrumental in establishing the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG) in 2006 as a multidisciplinary research centre in Ireland and internationally. O'Shea was ICSG Director for four years. His coaching skills are also life-skills.
O'Shea always tells the players to enjoy themselves. Given the research he has done on ageing, he has a different perspective on life than most people. "I couldn't tell you what I did yesterday and I'm not sure what I'm doing tomorrow unless somebody tells me," says O'Shea. "That's the truth. We live in the now because it's the only time we have. I think it's a good philosophy for life because you don't know anything about what's going to happen in the future. I'm really enjoying it."
They have all been on a mission since last year's All-Ireland final defeat. That was obvious from the mood in the Louis Fitzgerald hotel the night of last year's All-Ireland final replay. Tipp have already won Munster but there is only one cup Tipp really want.
"The players definitely feel that this is a new era for Tipperary," says Kelly. "The lads will be very disappointed when Eamon walks out that door at the end of the year. They will really want to win the All-Ireland for him but it is still very much the here and now. Eamon would always say that himself."
Given how the team has evolved this year, Tipp's future looks bright. Past experience has framed their outlook. But for O'Shea and his crew, the only future is now.