Vincent Hogan: Time for inconsistent Seamus Callanan to deliver on big stage
Full-forward must reproduce red-hot form against top sides to convince doubters he is real deal after six years in Tipp jersey
It always seems boom or bust with Tipperary and in Seamus Callanan they have, thus, an emblematic figure.
One day irresistible, the next forced to clamber through the razor wire of hostile local opinion, Callanan's county career is one of those great, confusing riddles of the modern game. Liam Sheedy had him on the Tipp senior squad even before he hurled U-21, yet that was six years ago. He is old enough and seasoned enough now to be considered one of Tipp's spiritual leaders then.
Yet, can we truly yet call him that?
No question, this summer has hinted at a great leap taken. Eamon O'Shea's decision to give Callanan permanency on the edge of the opposition 'square' has enabled the Drom and Inch man settle into a rhythm that, lately at least, has been catching an operatic tenor. Yet, in Tipp's toughest game this summer, Callanan had all the natural advantages against Richie McCarthy (height, pace, touch), but never quite inflicted the punishment that equation promised.
This is the nub of what unsettles Tipp people. When their attack flows - as it has done since against Galway, Offaly and Dublin - their movement can look as precisioned and disciplined as gowned neurologists working under a surgical light. But, when that lucidity is missing, the requirement for self-sufficiency throws up jarring noise.
Until this year, Callanan was viewed primarily as a half-forward, yet he has never been a primary ball-winner nor, for his size, especially aggressive. He has, thus, struggled to win puck-out ball and, accordingly, been hopelessly marginalised in tight, high-intensity games.
During the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, he played largely on the '40', making little conspicuous impact against Joey Boland before being replaced by Brendan Maher at half-time. He lasted the same amount of time in that year's final defeat to Kilkenny, the patience of then manager Declan Ryan clearly worn.
Dublin corner-back Niall Corcoran remembers the semi-final as offering a glimpse into the strange paradox that Callanan's career was becoming.
"He's a different player now to back then, I'd have to say," said Corcoran this week. "Because he was non-existent in that game, he just wilted out basically. But the fact he's in a more central position means he's in the game the whole time now. And he's so effective.
"What strikes me most about him is that for such a big guy he has so much hurling ability. And he's very good on his feet."
Since the Limerick defeat, Callanan has been a human fountain of scores, delivering 3-8 against Galway, 2-10 against Offaly and 0-11 against Dublin in the quarter-final.
"I thought Peter Kelly did very well on him the last day, yet he was always a threat," says Corcoran. "He's one of those guys who, when he gets good ball in, you can't take it off him. It's nearly a guaranteed score. He also has real pace. I saw it the night against Galway, the way he sidestepped (Ronan) Burke for one of his goals. I always knew he had pace, but his feet were excellent and that's something I hadn't noticed in him before.
"The man's really hard to block and very direct in his movement now. When we played them in the League, I remember going out to a ball, but he got there before me, turned and just ran straight at me. I think Peter got in a hook in the end, put it out for a '65'. But he's beginning to play a lot more aggressively than he did before."
The view now is that Callanan could, by tomorrow evening, be a live contender for Hurler of the Year or, just as easily, have slipped out of any serious consideration for an All Star. That has been the narrative of his career, always flirting somewhere between triumph and despair.
After being the first player taken off in the 2010 qualifier against Wexford, he completed just two of his next 16 Championship matches. Having scored a goal in all three of Tipp's Munster Championship games in '09, his star was palpably waning the following summer.
All-Ireland-winning captain of '91, Declan Carr, had been Tipp's U-21 manager as Callanan first broke into the seniors and remembers a young player who looked to have the world at his feet.
"My first impression was he had incredible skill, incredible ability, but was a small bit immature," recalled Carr this week. "I just think it took him a while to nail things down, but he's more of a man now. Like I've good time for him, he could be lethal. The guy could genuinely be another Henry Shefflin. But I need more convincing. I'd love to see him horsing a few backs out of his way this Sunday and burying a goal.
"Because Seamie's a huge man. He's an animal to stand beside, lean and fit and strong, six foot three or four with all the skill, pace, what have you.
"And he's playing with more confidence now and is probably a bit more relaxed about his game.
"But he's 25, it's time! I just see this as his defining moment because, with the best will in the world, Galway, Offaly and Dublin were poor. This is Seamie's opportunity and, win or lose, he'll win the sceptics over if he produces against Cork."
There is a theory that he may need a good start to do so because Callanan is, undeniably, a confidence player. He beat McCarthy out to most balls against Limerick, but an early block-down by the full-back seemed to infect Callanan's game with panic. If anything, he looked a player trying too hard, spurning one particular goal opportunity by effecting a big, open swing that all but invited McCarthy's eventual hook.
Yet, there is something glorious about Callanan in full flight. When he scored a spectacular goal against Clare in the 2009 Munster semi-final, Nicky English was co-commentating on TV3.
"That's the absolute class of Seamus Callanan," purred English, no journeyman himself, to Trevor Welch. The pulled-up socks and almost playful cadence of his movement impart a strange beauty to how he hurls.
And there is the sense now that Eamon O'Shea's reluctance to replace him even on slow-burn days has reassured Callanan that he is central to where Tipp are going. "It's as if they're saying to him, 'We believe in you, now go get the job done!'" suggests Corcoran. "And for most of the year he has."
Tipp's style this summer has been to play two forwards inside, usually Callanan and John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer. The distribution of personnel is flexible, the structure isn't. By and large, Noel McGrath operates as playmaker, calling the switches while floating with free licence around the middle third.
Against Dublin, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher made one run into the corner, designed clearly to pull Liam Rushe with him. Dublin had anticipated the move, delegating Michael Carton to take up emergency duty as a corner-back.
Yet, by the time Carton was in place, 'Bonner' had swept back out again, corrupting Dublin's defensive structure.
Tipp's management have made a point of empowering their forwards to make such calls themselves and Callanan is among those now thriving. There is a view that O'Shea's loading of extra responsibility on his shoulders has reaped a big dividend.
And it is one franked by Davy Fitzgerald. The Clare manager had Callanan under his stewardship at LIT and believes him to be a player who thrives on trust.
"I think it's only in the last year or two that people are seeing Seamie's real talent," suggests Fitzgerald.
"For me, he's in the top six forwards in the country, without a shadow of a doubt. But it's only now that he feels trusted it's starting to come out. We had him with LIT for a few years, but it was only in his last year that he really started taking responsibility."
By his own team-mates' recall, Callanan's "carried" Tipp to this year's National League final. Yet he endured a difficult day then in the company of JJ Delaney, his performance impossible to reconcile with the haul of 3-6 claimed in Nowlan Park two months earlier.
There is, thus, the sense that he has yet to make that one truly momentous statement his exceptional talent endlessly drum-rolls.
A big performance from their No 14 against Cork tomorrow would surely give Tipp one foot in the final. But there are those who will wonder is it in him.
"He can get lost in a game if the defender starts to get on top," says Corcoran. "But I think Tipp now realise that no matter how poorly he might be going, he still has all the ability to get the ball and put it in the back of the net.
"He seems to be the go-to guy for them this year and the goal threat is huge. He works well inside with 'Bubbles' especially, the runs they make are very calculated. They do seem to get out first to the ball no matter how good a defender is. Even against Richie McCarthy, Callanan had been first to nearly every ball and maybe just didn't get the shot off.
"The only thing he has to overcome is that a poor ten minutes doesn't mean that you're finished."
O'Shea has his ear in that regard, the Tipp manager quick to stitch words like "patience" and "maturity" into any discussion on his full-forward now. He does so knowing there have been moments in Callanan's career when those qualities seemed lacking.
Yet, the grumbles have begun to recede and the assumption that his manager will afford him 70 minutes against Cork tomorrow should subdue any tendency to panic. To some degree, there is a career entering a new phase then.
In his first eight Championship games for Tipp, Callanan delivered 5-18 from play, trumpets blaring excitedly. But, by last June, even O'Shea looked to be surrendering faith, dropping him for the qualifier against Kilkenny. If this management gave up on Callanan, the story was surely over.
Is this the prodigal's moment?