Kilkenny vs Tipperary - Everything on the line again for two high kings of hurling
Liam Sheedy's first year back managing Tipperary hunkers down to another All-Ireland final appearance against Kilkenny.
He might wonder how much has really changed in his eight years away. Hurling, history shows, isn't inclined to move in mysterious ways. Limerick piped up with a first All-Ireland win in 45 years. Galway toasted a first MacCarthy Cup in 29 years. For all that, the decade ends in the same way it opened: Tipp and Kilkenny.
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And one thing hasn't changed at all. Brian Cody is still in charge, defying the obituarists, steadfast and majestic like the Pantheon in the heart of modern Rome. If there is an added relevance to Sheedy's connection to Cody, as opposed to the multitude of other opposing managers who have come and gone, it is that he masterminded the win in 2010 that wrecked Kilkenny's five-in-a-row bid.
After which he was, famously, gone out the door. And while he and others followed him, Cody toughened. Kilkenny returned with a vengeance to win in 2011 and '12, conquered again in '14 and '15. Two All-Ireland finals and a semi-final involved the trumping of Tipp, not to mention three league finals. By which time Sheedy had retreated into a mix of punditry, club management and normal living.
Perhaps the Portroe man is a master of good timing. He took over the senior management position when the county was experiencing dysfunction and strained relations after a spell under Babs Keating. The only way was up. He left when they were at the summit having given three exhausting years.
His predecessor, Keating, came from an old-money world. Sheedy didn't reject that part of Tipp's history but he didn't represent it either. He offered a kind of spiritual salvation - a return to rudimentary principles, plain honesty and hard work.
Paddy Stapleton describes Sheedy's arrival as "a breath of fresh air" and immediately noticed changes in how they were looked after and in the way the group began to mould into a stronger entity. Sheedy gave Stapleton his first senior jersey although Keating had brought him into the extended panel in the previous two years. He recalls being picked up outside a Dublin pub by Keating who drove him to his first session in UCD while the player was living in the city.
"I had only seen him on television before so it was a surreal thing getting into a car and spending 45 minutes with him," says Stapleton.
Keating was a hero of the 1960s and early '70s when Tipp were virtually untouchable for a period in hurling. He was infamously frank in delivering opinion and his relationship with some key players had broken down.
Sheedy, still in his 30s when he took on the job of managing Tipperary, had nowhere near the same starry profile as the man he replaced. His career bounty, chiefly, consisted of a National League title and an All-Ireland under 21 medal from '89. His senior championship appearances ran to a modest seven games. But he knew how to make a little go a long way.
Ironically, it was Keating who first introduced him to the Tipperary panel the month after the All-Ireland senior win in '89 and the under 21 final that followed it. That October he lined out in an understrength team against Dublin in the first round of the National League in Croke Park.
After defeat to Dublin (with mentor Theo English speaking of "too many pints and not enough hurling"), Sheedy was picked in the '89 Oireachtas final against Galway in Ennis, which was delayed until March 1990. He was substituted in a 1-19 to 0-8 defeat and he didn't play another competitive match for Tipp until 1997. He was living proof of the importance of not relinquishing the dream and of how hard work can eventually pay off.
In many ways he would have been an ideal player for Brian Cody. He had all the attributes that Cody holds dear. Cody himself had more similarities to Babs Keating in terms of his playing status, captaining an All-Ireland minor title win in 1972 and introduced for the All-Ireland senior final defeat by Limerick the following year. But while he would later win three All-Ireland senior medals, one as captain, his career also had a spell in exile after a disappointing outing at full-forward in the 1978 All-Ireland final against Cork.
Sheedy had some of that too. Having won an All-Ireland under 21 medal in 1989 at wing-back, Sheedy was moved to centre-forward while still under 21 the following year. In the Munster semi-final against Limerick, it looked a masterstroke. He scored 10 points, nine from play, off Mike Houlihan. He scored seven points in the Munster final against Waterford. He played in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny which they lost.
When Tipp manager Fr Tom Fogarty gave him a couple of challenge match starts at centre-forward in the mid-'90s which didn't go well, Sheedy later would describe 1990 as a freak and he explained that he was not suited to the position. It was only when Gaynor replaced Fogarty that Sheedy's career was revived.
Cody in his playing day had a certain elegance and regality. Sheedy was a very good player but there were innumerable others just as good and plenty more better. He got to where he did by sheer bullishness, one of the traits that has served him well in management. When Gaynor brought him back into the senior hurling panel he saw a player not unlike himself perhaps, in being an honest and fearless servant who thrived in tough, competitive environments. The hoary old euphemism of being a "no-nonsense" defender applied in Sheedy's case.
In management, he had an understanding of players whose careers were after hitting a bump in the road. "Lar Corbett started playing his best hurling in '08," says Stapleton. "From there on he was a different player. Maybe one of those players who didn't believe in themselves up to that began to under Liam. I think the mentality changed.
"To stop that drive that drive for five you needed a special manager - someone who did not hear what the outside world was saying. I think he is still the same. He cares about what happens in the circle. And that is how he empowers players. Players know he has pulled it out of the bag before."
Unlike Cody, he put down a long apprenticeship before becoming senior manager. A year with Ballina's intermediates in 2001. A season with the Tipperary intermediate team in '02. In 2003, he worked as a selector with Michael Doyle, then served two years with Tipp minors, winning an All-Ireland in his final season, 2006.
The year with Doyle brought him up against Kilkenny and Cody for the first time. He attended the press event on behalf of the management team ahead of the '03 National League final, with Kilkenny later defeating Tipp in a thrilling match 5-14 to 5-13. But they were rocked by Clare in the Munster Championship, losing by nine points, and eventually lost to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-finals by 12 points. Doyle was gone after one year. Without getting damaged directly, Sheedy had learned a great deal.
Sheedy will be 50 in October. Cody is now 65. None of that appears to matter, as age shows no diminution in either party. Cody's appetite remains insatiable and his ability to turn out excellently prepared Kilkenny hurling teams still exists. The win over Limerick was one of the finest team performances given by a Kilkenny team under his care. Last year Sheedy was on the short list of candidates to replace Páraic Duffy as the GAA's director-general. Not being successful, and Tipp's poor run in Munster last season, conspired to create a set of favourable circumstances for his return.
So, having shook hands at the end of the 2010 All-Ireland final, Cody and Sheedy are back patrolling the same sideline. The first exchange since Sheedy's return was in February when Kilkenny won in the league with an injury-time point from Eoin Murphy.
Kilkenny are not the domineering presence they were when Sheedy was here last when he staked his reputation on challenging their authority and eventually managed to overthrow them. But they are Kilkenny and they are Cody's Kilkenny which has resonances for Tipp and for Sheedy.
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The origins of today's All-Ireland final managers are very different. Cody is part of an exalted hurling tradition in James Stephens, and won two All-Ireland club titles. In Portroe, Sheedy helped his club to win the county intermediate title in 1990. It took them seven years to win their first senior championship match.
Did any of that matter? In the same way did it matter that Cody had little management experience when he was appointed to succeed Kevin Fennelly in the autumn on 1998? Nobody could have foreseen that he would be still in the same job now. Such is Cody's astonishing longevity that his management career straddles Sheedy's playing days and two stints in senior management, divided by that eight-year gap.
The tension between the counties isn't the same as it was when Sheedy was first in charge. In his first year in 2008 he led Tipp through an unbeaten spring league campaign including a semi-final victory in Nowlan Park over the hosts. They won Munster but were surprised by Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Perhaps that was a blessing given Kilkenny's performance in the final.
The following year Tipp were motoring nicely with three league wins when they went to Nowlan Park to play Kilkenny. After eight minutes, they had conceded two goals and by half-time, with the home team cheered off, Tipp were trailing 5-9 to 0-4. Under Sheedy they would never be as exposed and humiliated again.
"It's an experience for all of us and it's not a nice place to be this evening and I will take the responsibility," he said afterwards, shouldering the blame. "We didn't perform today."
Six weeks later, they challenged Kilkenny physically in a wild and at times lawless league final which went to extra-time before Kilkenny prevailed. Tipp had made a point that they would no longer be bullied. In the All-Ireland final, they showed they were capable of beating Kilkenny. They would 12 months later.
In between those two All-Ireland finals, there was another league match, this time in Thurles in March, 2010. The 1-14 to 0-13 win was Sheedy's first over Kilkenny in four attempts. During the match, with some flashpoints occurring on the field, Cody and Sheedy squared up to one another, the Kilkenny manager pointing his finger accusingly, Sheedy shoving Cody in the chest with limited force. Both were playing down the incident afterwards and making peace.
"I remember it was a targeted match anyway," says Paddy Stapleton. "They were definitely looking for a win. He wanted to win that because since '08 we hadn't beat them. I think he just knew psychologically it was very important to win that match."
Before the tension could have escalated further, Sheedy was away. But some things remain in place, apart from Cody, from that era. Players like Seamus Callanan, Pádraic Maher, Brendan Maher and Noel McGrath are still hurling and central to Tipp's hopes of closing off the decade with a third All-Ireland. That would leave them just one behind Kilkenny and have Sheedy outperforming Cody in All-Ireland finals two to one, admittedly over a shorter run. Cody's statistics, however, are mindblowing and unrivalled. His 21st season in charge. His 18th senior All-Ireland final as manager. Eleven wins. Two draws. Four losses.
It is obvious that Cody commands a huge respect in Kilkenny which demands total obedience and unflagging dedication. It has all the hallmarks of the strident schoolmaster but the love of hurling is genuine and deep. He has created a winning machine and a culture where there is a profound and clear understanding that everyone is subordinate to the team. That the team is family. And family is a matter of life and death.
Tipperary looked poised to fill their boots after storming to the All-Ireland in senior and under 21 in 2010, but after Sheedy's departure, the team struggled to find the same level of intensity to live with Kilkenny. That appeared to turn again in 2016 under Sheedy's former management partner Michael Ryan. Instead, Tipp went backwards after losing the league final in 2017. They went down to Kilkenny again in last year's league final, a match they were expected to win.
Babs Keating was an example of a manager who returned and found the second spell not as kind or memorable as the first. Maybe it can never be the same again or as good. But Sheedy has a strong track record and a management style that players tend to buy into. Stapleton said that he immediately set an All-Ireland as the target back in 2008. Each year brought incremental progress until it was attained.
"When he speaks, people listen," says Stapleton, who finished up his inter-county career after 2016. "I had him as an under 16 coach, with North Tipp. Even back then he had a super presence about him. I can't remember many of the other selectors at under 16 I had but I can remember Liam."
There is little doubt but that when Cody speaks the Kilkenny players listen and they act on what they're hearing. Tipperary haven't always seemed as attentive or dependable. Under Sheedy, though, they are a different animal.
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