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Vincent Hogan: Shot at redemption

On the Tuesday after Tipperary's 10-point trouncing by Cork in the first round of the 2010 Munster Championship, a 'clear-the-air' meeting was called in Horse and Jockey.

Candour was encouraged and most players availed of the opportunity to speak. One of them was Brian 'Buggy' O'Meara. The Kilruane 20-year-old had been a surprise debutant in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, enduring a difficult time before being hauled ashore eight minutes into the second period.

He'd been knocked onto the seat of his pants by a legitimate early shunt from Cork full-back Eoin Cadogan and, by the time of his departure, had left the edge of the 'square' to be re-sited in anonymity on the wing. O'Meara felt a sting of humiliation as he walked to the refuge of the stand.

"I'll tell you one thing," he promised the group in reference to Cadogan's hit two days later "that will never happen me again!"

History records how Tipp regrouped spectacularly through the slow-burn therapy of the qualifiers and, by September, had found sufficient momentum to destroy Kilkenny's bid for five-in-a-row. O'Meara, however, did not play a single minute of the remaining journey.

He'd aggravated an old knee injury in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, then found himself suspended for a month on foot of an innocuous, marginally late shoulder challenge during that defeat.

When, six weeks later, Tipp's U-21s returned to the same venue for a provincial semi-final against Cork, O'Meara wasn't even expected to make the bench. Team manager Ken Hogan admits he was not in his original match-day squad of 24, but just watching him in the pre-match warm-up changed the selectors' minds.

"We were all just looking at him thinking 'Jesus, Buggy's moving well!'" recalled Hogan this week. "So I went over to Ger Ryan (Tipperary PRO) and changed the official team list at the last second before it was handed to the referee."

With Tipp trailing, O'Meara was introduced as a substitute and engineered a late penalty which his clubmate, Seamus Hennessy, converted. The game went to extra-time. Tipp won.

'Buggy' would be Man of the Match in the subsequent Munster final defeat of Clare and, six days after Lar Corbett's hat-trick of goals downed Kilkenny that September, he was Tipp's main man again as Galway were devoured in the All-Ireland U-21 final.

"Buggy was awesome for us in that championship," says Hogan unequivocally now. "And yet, our first day out, we might easily have left him off the 24."

THE story of how 'Buggy' O'Meara was parachuted into Tipp's senior team two summers ago is both remarkable and unconventional.

One evening in the late autumn of '09, he was playing football in Boherlahan for Thomas McDonaghs with the then Tipperary football manager John Evans among the attendance. Evans remembers O'Meara as a slightly overweight kid who was substituted before the end. But he was struck instantly by his football intelligence and what he remembers as "extraordinary vision".

Evans went to O'Meara after the game, inviting him to join Tipp's U-21 squad.

"I remember I couldn't understand him being taken off," the Kerry man recalled this week. "What really stood out for me was his awareness and how hard he worked to get the ball to the man in the right place.

"But Buggy was overweight and I told him 'I can see what you have, but what you really need is to get hugely fit ...'"

intensive

For O'Meara, intensive training was an unexplored phenomenon, but he took to it with such enthusiasm that Evans included him in a Tipp senior squad that travelled to Spain for a one-week training camp between rounds of the National Football League that February.

In Spain, O'Meara was routinely double-marked during practice games at full-forward, but what Evans calls "his bull strength" enabled him to thrive. Shortly after their return from the camp, he scored 10 points from play in a hurling challenge for Kilruane McDonaghs, his fitness beginning to take him to another level.

By the end of March, he was part of the first Tipperary football team to win a Munster U-21 title, beating Kerry in Tralee. And, 11 days later, he was back hurling, scoring 0-15 (0-7 from play) for Kilruane in the first round of the North Tipp Championship against Liam Sheedy's club, Portroe.

And that was when Tipp's hurling manager decided to pick up the phone.

Sheedy called Evans. "You've a guy there that I'm very interested in. Do you mind if we have a look?" he asked.

Evans was unequivocal. "My attitude was, of course, I didn't mind!'"

Sheedy's team had pushed Kilkenny to the edge the previous September, but he was charmed by the idea of a big, mobile target-man who could hurl. And, though it was never quite intended that 'Buggy' would come into the equation for that first-round game in Cork, his form just wrote a different script.

On the second weekend in May, Anthony Daly's Dublin arrived in Nenagh for a midweek challenge and the game developed into an unexpected slaughter. Tipp drilled holes in the Dubs, their victory margin 5-25 to 0-15. The star of the show was 'Buggy' O'Meara.

Michael Ryan, one of Sheedy's selectors, recalls the evening clearly. "Buggy literally went to town," he says. "He was absolutely outstanding, had their full-back in knots. We wiped Dublin off the field that night which, in hindsight, was probably a bad thing.

"But Buggy had nailed himself into the team, I'd say, literally three weeks before we needed to pick it. Which is a fair achievement for a young fella who hadn't really featured in the league."

Sheedy himself concurs. "It wasn't just his ability to win ball because, sometimes for a big lad, the trouble kind of starts when you win possession. Buggy is different. He has great hurling skill and this ability to spot a player right or left.

"To be honest, his form just made the decision for us."

What followed, though, might easily have broken the young O'Meara.

He has described that debut day in Cork as "disastrous", replaced after 43 minutes in a team that was in trouble on every line. Then, soon after, insult followed injury through the letter box.

His one-month suspension reflected a disciplinary fashion of the day for retrospective video analysis. And Hogan believes it hurt O'Meara deeply.

"I was working very closely with Buggy that year and the suspension took an awful lot out of him," explains the Lorrha man. "He was very upset about it because the shoulder he'd given had been so innocuous. I mean for a young fella of 20 to be suspended for a month as well as taken off in your first championship game, it just took him a while to recover from it.

"The thing is, Buggy's a very sporting player. He's fearless, goes for every ball, but he's the type of guy who'd catch an opponent by the hand and pull him up off the ground. He's that type of sportsman, wouldn't knowingly hurt a fly. So that suspension hurt him deeply."

The family home is in Ardcroney, on the road from Nenagh to Borrisokane. One of his brothers died tragically before the family moved to the area. The other two are both accomplished hurlers, Niall currently involved with the Tipp U-21s and having trained with the seniors, while Mark lives in England and has hurled championship for London.

For O'Meara, 2011 never quite delivered on the promise of the year before, but a consistent run in this year's National League has given him a fresh foothold. His improved physical conditioning is self-evident and Ryan sees in his new body-shape a suggestion that he has embraced the imperatives of an inter-county life.

"There'd be a view that Buggy's as good a socialiser as ever graced a Tipperary hurling team," Ryan chuckles. "To be fair to him, I know a lot of these things are exaggerated. I mean you have to remember he was only 20 when we had him. But you'd hate to see a talent slip by and I will admit I did fear for him.

"Would he be mobile enough? Would he have the commitment? He's a lovely, likeable, light-hearted fella and, thankfully, he looks as though he's right back where he needs to be now."

Evans says he could understand the hurling management's concern.

"I think he's realised that the gap in commitment and dedication required from where he was is huge. And he's had to close that gap. He has to watch his diet, watch his social scene.

"I know that had all changed for him last year and he was giving it huge commitment. Buggy's a very affable guy you see. He would befriend everybody and everybody would befriend him. You can be a nice guy, but you have to be absolutely committed as well.

"It's about a lifestyle choice and, fair play to him, you can see he seems to have made it."

HE DIDN'T exactly electrify the National League, but he did send up the occasional flare. O'Meara scored 0-5 in the draw with Dublin, albeit the bulk of it harvested when Paul Schutte went off with an injury. And he struck for 1-2 in the semi-final against Cork, the same return he managed in Tipp's opening Munster Championship defeat of Limerick.

Ken Hogan believes that management's patience may be beginning to pay a dividend. "You can see he's developed the body of an inter-county hurler now," says Hogan. "And his game has come on in leaps and bounds because, as well as his ball-winning ability and an unbelievable first touch, he's now able to cover the grass.

"You have to remember the chap is still only 22. He's had the benefit of two years fitness and conditioning training now and, as a big fella, he needed that. Buggy's very humble, great fun to be around, but he's very serious about what he's doing too.

"I always think the biggest part of making the step up to senior is mental. And maybe Buggy's had to overcome that little bit of baggage of what happened him in Cork."

Michael Ryan agrees.

"To be fair to the man, we probably pushed him a bit too far that day," he says. "But I would argue that he didn't let us down in Cork. He kept trying to do the right things. Then he got the suspension, which was harsh, and the show just went on without him. We never had the benefit of him again that year.

"I'll say one thing for him. When he's near to the goals, in motion, Buggy's very hard to stop. And he will take a direct route, which gives Tipp a great dynamic. Because, if there's one thing they have been a little shy of lately, it's that goal-threat."

In Kilruane, they have little doubt he is ready to put his copyright on Tipperary's season. Jim Williams, this year's senior manager, has been impressed by O'Meara's leadership in the dressing-room, reflecting "he's been way more mature than I expected". Len Gaynor concurs, suggesting O'Meara to now be "an absolute leader" with the club.

Recently he sat an entrance exam for the army and there is a sense of O'Meara's life now settling into a contented, coherent pattern. He wouldn't be human, of course, if he didn't encounter uncomfortable flashbacks tomorrow as Tipp convene in Horse and Jockey for the drive to Cork.

But, for 'Buggy' O'Meara, it will feel like a redemption day.

Irish Independent