Courage under fire
THE flight path may have changed but the destination always remained the same for Liam Sheedy and his Tipperary hurlers. Croke Park in August. Business end of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. September too, all going to plan.
An aborted take-off at Pairc Ui Chaoimh on May 30 brought the usual snipers out from under the parapet, but Sheedy was already busy checking his coordinates and plotting a new course.
The journey continued with stopovers in Thurles and Portlaoise. Fuel was taken on board while Sheedy and his passengers endured surprisingly little turbulence against first Wexford, and then Offaly, in the qualifiers.
But against Galway at Croke Park 15 days ago, Tipp's engines spluttered badly before a late sonic boom accounted for the Tribesmen in a classic All-Ireland quarter-final.
Struggling furiously at the controls, Sheedy pressed the right buttons in the cockpit as substitutions worked a treat.
When things go wrong, being manager of the Tipperary senior hurling team is not the most pleasant job in the world.
And within the county, Sheedy and his back-room team have been criticised for a perceived lack of action on the sideline at crucial times in recent seasons.
But the Portroe man, like many of his players, remains on a steep learning curve.
One thing about Sheedy is that he will never hide and here he is again, in familiar surroundings at the Horse and Jockey, sharing his thoughts before yet another All-Ireland semi-final.
He was an easy target after Tipp fell by 10 points against Cork at the end of May and within 24 hours, former boss Michael 'Babs' Keating was busy picking at the Leeside carcass.
It was a predictable move on Keating's part, but placing Cork's Denis Walsh on a higher managerial plane than Sheedy because the Tipp man never won an All-Ireland senior medal as a player was a cheap shot.
That's when it got personal, but, to his credit, Sheedy never rose to the bait and behind closed doors, he's got the show back on the road.
If he wished, Sheedy could point to Keating's utterly disastrous second coming and compare it to his own tenure, which has yielded two Munster senior hurling titles and now, a third successive All-Ireland semi-final appearance.
But he's far too dignified for that. "People are entitled to their view; they are entitled to what they want to say. I was of the opinion that I will give this job my heart and soul and wherever that takes me, it takes me. That's all I ever ask of the players -- give it your all."
Since Cork, brickbats have been replaced by backslaps and the critics have fallen silent, for now.
But Sheedy knows they're still there, waiting for another chance to twist the knife.
He insists: "That (personal criticism) does not affect me in any way, shape or form. I love the job I do. I really enjoy being involved with this group and I can assure you we give 100pc every night I go in. I never missed a training session yet and I have no intention of missing one. If they have enough of me, they can tell me go!"
Sheedy laughs and the confidence oozing from him is evident. It's a confidence borne out of a cocktail of conflicting emotions during the last three seasons.
It's clear, too, that the nature of the Galway win has infused Sheedy and his players with a renewed sense of optimism. Many still questioned their stomach for a fight but somehow, Tipp harvested three points from play in the closing minutes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The significance of that victory is huge. Had Tipp lost, Sheedy may well have walked away. Putting it up to arguably the greatest team of all time in a classic All-Ireland final in 2009 represents huge progress. Losing an All-Ireland quarter-final less than 11 months later is a step backwards.
It's been a long time since Tipp won a game like Galway. Many seasoned observers within the county believe that it's the most important senior championship win since the 2001 final, even bigger than winning Munster titles.
As ash splintered and minds raced, Sheedy kept a cool head as a helter-skelter match veered one way and then another. On the line, he came of age. He brought on Seamus Callanan, who scored a goal with his first touch. The other subs contributed hugely, too. John O'Brien's superb catch and point towards the finish kept Tipp in it. Conor O'Brien's first contribution was to shoulder charge his Galway marker, a statement of intent.
It wasn't long before he was clearing a ball at one end of the pitch and chasing down an opposing defender at the other.
Meanwhile, young Pa Bourke, an All-Ireland minor medallist in 2006 when Sheedy was manager, was making his own statement.
First, he laid off the pass for Gearoid Ryan's equaliser before setting up his Thurles Sarsfields clubmate, Lar Corbett, for the winner.
For a guy who had a difficult year on and off the field, this was nice.
Those final few minutes of the Galway game also offered clear evidence of how far Tipp have come since they were outfoxed by Waterford in the 2008 semi-final.
No Hail Mary shots this time, right options taken, composure in abundance, courage in the face of adversity.
Sheedy nods: "There is a level of experience there now that is greater than what it was three years ago (when he first took charge).
"They have benefited from playing in big games; there's no doubt about it, and taking the right option. These matches can come down to whoever makes the best decisions.
"We got the rub of the green as well, let's be clear. Galway had two shots on goal that they will be disappointed they didn't score points from.
"All of a sudden then it was a four-point game and there was no way we were coming back. So, we did take the right decisions, got the vital scores."