Extra focus allows Tipp's 'main man' to fulfil potential
Born-again Callanan recovers form to finally convince Premier faithful
In the lead-up to Tipperary's qualifier against Galway, some of the locals were screaming for change and calling for heads – and a share of the mob had Seamus Callanan in mind.
Against Limerick, Callanan scored two points from play, set up Patrick 'Bonner' Maher's goal and engineered two more points, but the scoring opportunities he'd missed were screaming louder than any digits on the scoreboard. With Callanan, Tipperary expect more. Always more.
The mob is always ruthless in their demands, but they felt they had a right to protest. From his 14 plays, Callanan was either blocked down or hooked on five occasions. Some of those plays were clear scoring opportunities, which further sharpened the blades of those looking for a public execution. Eamon O'Shea could hear the racket, but he just shrugged his shoulders and reinvested the trust he has shown in Callanan all season.
The public's reaction in Tipp was mostly a reflex action because of the oscillations in Callanan's Tipp career since 2010. Nobody doubted his massive talent, but prior to this season, his inter-county career was mired in a mediocrity unbecoming of his outrageous ability and potential. Everybody was beginning to doubt Callanan.
After he was substituted in the 2010 qualifiers against Wexford, Callanan saw out just two of Tipperary's next 16 championship matches. He only started half of those games and Callanan couldn't exactly crib with many of those decisions.
He came on after 30 minutes of the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway and bagged a brilliant goal, but it was the only time he had the ball in his hand in the match. He was hauled off at half-time in the 2011 All-Ireland final after making just two plays.
He was taken off scoreless from play against Limerick in last year's championship and was dropped for the subsequent defeat to Kilkenny. A clear trend was emerging in Callanan's career, but O'Shea handed him the No 14 jersey at the start of this season and publicly declared a renewed faith. Even when Tipp were struggling during the spring, Callanan's status remained intact and he handsomely repaid O'Shea's trust. Callanan scored 5-62 during the campaign, 4-17 from play, the top scorer in the league by a distance.
"He has been given more responsibility," says Damien Young, a club-mate, team-mate and former underage coach of Callanan. "He is taking the frees now all the time, but he has more confidence in himself. He has had to take on more responsibility and Seamie is thriving on it. For too long, he was looking over his shoulder but now he is the main man and is growing in confidence all the time."
In Drom and Inch, Callanan grew up across the road from the national school in 'The Ragg'. Paudie Butler, former National Hurling Co-ordinator, was his teacher and principal. "From when he was six, Seamus had exceptional hands and magical feet," says Butler. "From when he was 10 or 11, he was always able to get goals."
After Callanan scored six goals in a mid-Tipperary U-12 final against Durlas Óg, the path to big days with Tipp stretched out in front of him. He was slight as a boy, but he really stretched in height at 16 and was on the Tipp minor team which won the 2006 All-Ireland title. Liam Sheedy drafted him onto the senior panel in 2008 and when Callanan arrived, he exploded. In his first eight championship matches, he racked up a whopping 5-18, all of it from play, all of it from the half-forward line.
Although his form started to dip in 2010, his slump continued when Declan Ryan took over and it really began to go south in the middle of the 2011 season. It got worse in the 2012 championship when Callanan made just two substitute appearances for a sum total of 24 minutes.
The change of tactics and change of focus in the way Tipp played didn't always suit Callanan. Tipp became more direct, but Callanan didn't trade on aggression and physicality and dominating defenders under puck-outs and long deliveries wasn't his game. There were stories of issues between Callanan and Ryan and while there are two sides to every story, Ryan wasn't getting the most out of Callanan and Callanan wasn't getting the most out of himself.
Every club is always protective and defensive of their own, but that period of Callanan's career still irks Butler.
"People were misreading Seamus' talent because they were playing players with half his talent," he says. "They have their views, but I was very cross that they couldn't see the talent in front of them. You need to put confidence in certain players. You need to appreciate imagination and Seamus has a vision and talent that few players have."
During that difficult period with Tipp, Callanan captained Drom and Inch to their first county title in 2011. Callanan was immense in the final, effectively deciding a tight game with six points in the last quarter. O'Shea rehabilitated his career when he took over in 2013 and even though he dropped Callanan during that championship, he never lost patience.
Over the winter, Callanan got stronger. On and off the field, he has never worked harder. "Seamie has worked unbelievably hard this year and he is getting the rewards," says 'Bonner' Maher. "You could see that in his last goal against Galway. A defender gave a handpass across and he was working so hard that he blocked it into his own path.
"He is in some shape now. He has always worked hard, but he is really driving it on this year. I have marked him in a few drills in training and he has blown me away. That is great for him and it's great for Tipperary hurling. He is after refocusing himself and his mindset is good. I expect big things from him this year."
Callanan first raised that expectation when hitting 3-6 against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in March. Yet when the sides met again in the league final, the hurling public's doubts about him resurfaced. He went 20 minutes in the first half without touching the ball in open play and there was another 20-minute period in the second half when he only touched the ball once.
Critics rounded on him again after the Limerick game, but Callanan has been on fire ever since. Against Galway, he made 15 plays and ended the match with 3-1 from play. Against Offaly, he made 14 plays, scored 2-3 from play, gave the last pass for Lar Corbett's goal and was fouled for three converted frees.
Callanan lives 200 yards from the pitch in 'The Ragg' and it has always been his social hub. He is always there practising frees or just hanging out and the club has always been a huge focus for Callanan. He was nominated for an All Star in 2009, but it was the weekend of the county final and Callanan stayed at home that Friday of the ceremony and attend the squad's final training session.
Young says anytime you see Callanan "he has a hurley in his hand," but he tells another story that encapsulates his commitment and dedication. Drom and Inch were playing Arravale Rovers in an U-16B county football semi-final one year and Callanan was selected at corner-forward. Young told him he needed to practise more with his left foot and Callanan took that advice literally.
"He could just about make an attempt at kicking the ball with his left foot," says Young. "But he gave the next three days solid to trying to improve it. On the day, he kicked five points with his left foot."
Nobody has ever doubted Callanan's immense talent and dedication, but he still has to fully convince a demanding and unforgiving Tipperary public. Especially now with Dublin's excellent full-back Peter Kelly looming into Callanan's view on Sunday. "Some people still doubt him, but you can always create doubt about anyone," says Butler. "It is management's job to nurture talent and Eamon O'Shea has done that with Seamus."
O'Shea has extracted huge performances from Callanan this season, but even he knows there is more there.
"He (Callanan) knows what is expected of him," O'Shea said after the Offaly game. "He is developing into a really good player, but he still has a way to go."
With Callanan's huge talent, everyone expects more. Always more.