Thursday 19 July 2018

All Ireland hurling semi final: Fear of failure a driving force

Tipperary and Galway managers know losing could spell the end for them in their positions

Tipperary manager Eamonn O'Shea (left) and Galway manager Anthony Cunningham
Tipperary manager Eamonn O'Shea (left) and Galway manager Anthony Cunningham

Damian Lawlor

With 15 minutes left in last year's All-Ireland qualifier between Tipperary and Galway, one TV producer began putting the finishing touches to his post-match editorial. He scribbled three questions on a pad; they were to be put to the Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea.

How does it feel bowing out as Tipperary manager without a championship win?

Is this the end of you as Tipperary boss?

Will many of the players go with you when you leave?

As lines of enquiry go, this was pretty blunt, but for GAA managers, that's the nature of the game. Hero one day, expendable the next.

In those closing minutes, however, O'Shea's players finally paid back a long-standing debt to their manager. Seamus Callanan, a man whose moribund hurling fortunes O'Shea had revived, led the way with a brace of goals in a dramatic turnaround that meant it was Galway's Anthony Cunningham and not O'Shea who had to field the searching questions.

Cunningham, to his credit, came out with guns blazing and boldly declared he was not finished with the Galway job. He wanted more. "I'll be looking to stay. There's a lot of hard work after going into this for the past three years. We have a good young team. I want to stay."

Cunningham had been in charge since 2012, when the county threatened to take hurling by storm, but 2013 was dire and 2014 much worse. Knives had been sharpened, but his defiant words and demeanour blunted them, and the campaign to dislodge him lost momentum.

Quietly, he set about reshaping his back room. Damien Curley, who knows the county's underage structures inside out, was given a bigger role. Eugene Cloonan, once the county's talisman, was brought in as skills coach. And so it's a tactically astute and more-hardened Galway that arrives at Croke Park for today's All-Ireland semi-final.

O'Shea, like Cunningham in 2012, almost caught Kilkenny at the final hurdle last year, but looked on in agony as John O'Dwyer's late free sailed just wide. At the subsequent homecoming in Thurles, he gave all the credit to his players, insisting their journey was not yet over. There were mutterings, however, that his own race was run.

"He gave it everything and he was burnt out," says a member of the Tipperary set-up. "From bringing lads directly to medics, to joining others as they went through their rehab, bringing players to quiet club venues for extra coaching, ensuring the backroom team was looked after, Eamon didn't have a second to spare. The demands on him as a professor at NUIG are huge. And the players wanted him as a coach as well as a manager. That's not easy for him."

Three players approached the county board chairman to say that several squad members would bale out if O'Shea was let go. "You just had a feeling you wouldn't be coached by anyone better for the rest of your days," one player says.

In the end, Tipperary got him back. Cunningham, meanwhile, went back to Galway.

And here they are again, once more locking horns in a struggle for survival. There's more at stake than there was when they met last year. If Tipperary lose, it will categorically be the end for O'Shea, for whom Michael Ryan would be a ready replacement. If Galway lose, Cunningham will surely face resistance to going ahead with the final year of his term.

That's the ruthless backdrop to today's drama: lose and much or all of what you have worked for and achieved deemed ultimately a failure. So in their time at the helm, what imprint have these two men left on their respective crews?

Well, O'Shea is not only a fine, left-of-field coach, he has also shielded his players whenever shrapnel flew. The team's work rate is consistent, touch and movement are sublime.

O'Shea has resurrected careers - for proof see Callanan - and cultivated others. Callanan and John O'Dwyer both thrived under O'Shea.

Callanan, a bit-part player for the team after 2010, was the top-scorer in last year's championship, with a final tally of 9-50. Leaving aside the Munster final, he has been superb again this season.

O'Dwyer hit 2-19 last year and 12 points so far this season; he is averaging a phenomenal six points a game, two more than last year.

O'Shea has sent raw recruits like Cathal Barrett, James Barry, Michael Breen, Bill O'Meara and Jason Forde into the heat of battle. When things got tough, he stuck with them, thanks to which, a fine new breed of hurler has been blooded. A new goalkeeper has also been introduced.

As for Cunningham, he has worked hard to become only the second Galway boss since 1991 to survive into a fourth season - Conor Hayes being the other.

The players will tell you that he is a good listener. He might not give them all they want, but he takes their views on board. He monitors, too, and expects players to log daily nutrition on an internal site.

He's fiery, but for too long Galway have been maybe too easy-going. When Galway were beaten by Kilkenny, he did not - as another manager might have done - sweet-talk or genuflect to Brian Cody. He told him they would meet again in the All-Ireland final. He might yet prove as good as his word.

Cunningham is too busy to cultivate an ego. He merely wants to banish the hurt of all those lost decades. Hence the fighting talk coming out of Galway last week.

He has overseen a rigorous training regime and now feels his players are well placed to deliver. On days without collective training, they are practising yoga or in the sea; when they're not hurling, they're in the gym.

They have evolved a technical system that's hard to counteract. They leave two up front and move their forwards about. Johnny Glynn is a magnet for high ball. Cathal Mannion is as accurate from 60 yards as six. Jason Flynn is an elusive, supercharged handful.

As illustrated by their quarter-final win, they are far from a one-man band, but to win today, they'll need to get the best out of Joe Canning.

Galway have plenty of scorers. Mannion has bagged 3-15 this summer, and in fact the six forwards who started against Cork have 10-46 between them from play this campaign. They manage at least seven different scorers each day they go out.

Interestingly, Cunningham actively went looking for involvement in the All-Ireland-winning Galway intermediate team, and for a reason - three of that development squad have featured on the senior team.

It means that in contrast to previous years, when fine young hurlers jinked through Galway squads with little rhyme or rhythm, they now have the best 34 young hurlers on their books and readily identifiable in Galway senior, intermediate and under 21 panels.

Cunningham has close links with all three squads, so transition is seamless. The players are going flat out for him. Sick of chopping and changing at the helm, they see Cunningham as the sure hand that will steer them.

O'Shea, meanwhile, is equally invested in Tipperary hurling and has moved to ensure his legacy when he leaves. That's not arrogance - it's lateral thinking and passion for the county. He watched the 2012 Tipp-Kilkenny All-Ireland semi-final with head in hands, aghast at how far south things had gone since the previous year's heroics.

Now Mick Ryan is primed to take over. Ryan deserves his shot and O'Shea knows he is leaving the players in safe hands and that effective structures and systems will be maintained.

There is, by the way, a curious by-product to O'Shea's modesty. You get the impression some of the players are beginning to believe he's as unimportant as he declares. At a recent GPA event, John O'Dwyer seemed to suggest the manager was almost incidental to their current form.

"People say the players are playing for Eamon O'Shea and stuff like this," said O'Dwyer. "But Eamon O'Shea, as he says himself, is the least important person in the whole set-up. We're going out playing and there's maybe 40 people involved in the whole set-up. Just because Eamon has the tag of manager doesn't make him the most important."

With respect to O'Dwyer, that's way off. For all his dedication and skills, O'Dwyer might never again be guided by such a great coach. Many of these Tipperary players were short on confidence when he returned as manager and might have melted into oblivion were it not for his perseverance and belief in them. And he has always backed them, on good days and bad.

It's likewise in Galway. At times the players may have hankered for change, but then they see a man working selflessly to get them to the top, a busy family man and professional intent on making hurling history.

Two men on different routes with the same end goal in mind. For one, the quest, that magnificent obsession to tread the steps of the Hogan Stand, will end today.

And while life will move on, whatever the outcome, it may never be quite the same again.

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