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'My daughter had to get a tumour removed' - How hurling's support helped Shane O'Brien see light of life in the shadows

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Shane O’Brien admits the challenges facing Westmeath in Division 1 are huge, but he has surrounded himself with an outstanding backroom team and believes significant progress is being made. Photo: Mark Condren

Shane O’Brien admits the challenges facing Westmeath in Division 1 are huge, but he has surrounded himself with an outstanding backroom team and believes significant progress is being made. Photo: Mark Condren

Shane O’Brien admits the challenges facing Westmeath in Division 1 are huge, but he has surrounded himself with an outstanding backroom team and believes significant progress is being made. Photo: Mark Condren

The Tommy Tiernan Show (fictitious), February, 2020. Guest appears.

'Who are you?'

'Shane O'Brien.'

'What do you do, Shane?'

'I manage the Westmeath hurlers.'

Of all the managers operating across Division 1 of the National Hurling League, the least known is sitting before me now. Shane O'Brien's biggest fear for much of this conversation isn't the prospect of playing the All-Ireland champions in Thurles today. It is that this might project him in a light that he'll be uncomfortable with.

For most of his time involved in hurling he has been content to work in the shadow of others. Has he ever met Brian Cody? No. Davy Fitz? No. Liam Sheedy? No. Has he an interesting story to tell? Yes, even if it takes a little coaxing.

Indirectly, you learn that he doesn't smoke or drink, and that he is a regular Mass-goer. His faith provided a pillar of support when his daughter took seriously ill at the age of one. And hurling was an anchor too. It had its place, but he was glad of it.

In many ways, he is tailor-made for Westmeath. Even Division 1 counties on the fringes of the elite, like Carlow and Laois, have managers with high profiles and All-Ireland medals. Having served as head coach and understudy to Joe Quaid last year, O'Brien's appointment as manager came slightly from left-field.

In his playing days he represented Dublin at minor and under-21 and spent a good stretch with Cuala in the valley period when they were not winning anything. He's had various coaching and management stints with Oulart-The Ballagh, the Dublin senior camogie team and Trinity College, more recently the head coach with Kildare under Quaid before they both ventured to Westmeath. He has four kids under ten and a wife who "didn't know one end of a hurl from the other" when they met but who he describes as a "saint" for putting up with him and the time he devotes to hurling.

Westmeath compete in the toughest of the two Division 1 groups. After Tipperary today there is a trip to play the All-Ireland winners of 2018, Limerick. In the opening round the squad travelled to face the All-Ireland champions of 2017, Galway. Last year the same players were hurling against Kerry and London. The jump, their manager admits, has been "colossal".

A PE teacher at St Colmcille's Community School in Knocklyon on the southside of Dublin, O'Brien started coaching school teams in his teens. His father came to Dublin from Windgap in Kilkenny and helped set up Cabinteely GAA club. It was there that his son played for much of his underage career before moving to Cuala when he first made the Dublin under-21s.

"In many ways I feel hugely privileged when I see the company that's alongside me," he says, referring to an impressive backroom team. "It may be a strange appointment for some, the fact I am not a big name, but I think for me it's about having the right fit. And this group is the right fit for me."

O'Brien was also coach with manager John McEvoy when Dublin reached the 2011 All-Ireland under-21 hurling final. Every step along the way was an opportunity to learn, even a chance encounter with the former Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers a few years ago.

Playing taught him valuable lessons for the after-life of management and coaching. "One of the things in many ways that nearly restricted me as a player was that it nearly meant too much to me and I was over-thinking, obsessive about my passion of the game all the way up," he says.

"I felt I over-analysed things as a player. I was quite nervous playing. I found I didn't make the progress I should have. So from that point of view it was a great learning. There are certain characteristics in certain players that I can relate to.

"Look, I was no big shot, I was a mediocre club hurler. It was the whole fear of making mistakes, the fear of being criticised, that restricted me. I would like to think that I would have an understanding of that side of things as a manager. Probably have a bit more empathy as a result."

He also used what connections he created along the way. Alan Kerins, who he knew while in Trinity for a year, is working with Westmeath as a performance coach. Paudie O'Neill, formerly with Eamon O'Shea in Tipperary, is another old acquaintance and a Westmeath mentor, with a monitoring role across all coaching grades. Frank Flannery, from Kanturk, had O'Brien as a coach at Oulart.

"We are blessed with the level of expertise within our set-up. Any county to have the quality of Frank Flannery as a coach. Paudie O'Neill. Brendan Murtagh (selector), Alan Kerins. Paul Greville (selector). These are highly-regarded, highly-respected. You can see the impact they are having on the group. It is not about me, it is about the management group. I had made up my mind that I would go in if I had the right people around me.

"Frank is one of a kind, a unique character in the sense that I don't think I have ever met anyone as passionate, an extraordinary character. His enthusiasm and passion are infectious. He is driving three hours from Cork up and down three and four times a week. You could get five different phone calls a day from him, with different ideas that he might have, and he's holding down a big job at the same time."

Flannery previously worked under Kieran Kingston in Cork. Westmeath's panel has also been availing of a leading sports psychologist whose clients include Premier League teams and Olympic athletes. Mike Frawley, who worked with Davy Fitzgerald in Wexford for the last three years as a strength and conditioning coach, is another member of an impressive backroom team.

The option of coaching Westmeath emerged for O'Brien around the time of his daughter's illness. "I was unsure whether I'd be able to commit or not, she was diagnosed with cancer, a one-year old child, but she is doing great now, thank God," he explains.

"She had to get a tumour removed. At the time when Joe had asked, I was unsure what I was going to be able to do but it was a blessing. People say it puts everything into perspective. It also highlights the importance of sport and having that support and connection with something and to have it as a tiny distraction at the time."

His strong religious faith helped him at the time of his daughter's illness but he quickly adds that he isn't "squeaky clean" or a "holy Joe".

"I learned more about people during that experience than any other time in my life," he admits. "You see people in a whole new light. People that you might have been relatively close with become so much closer because of the empathy and support they showed. And others, who you would have expected more support from, showed a kind of shallowness. But things like people offering Masses and prayers were so supportive. Faith is important so that meant a lot to me."

He speaks highly of his group of players. "It is the closest thing to a club you'll get. It is not a glamorous, high-profile county like other Division 1 counties are. But they make up for the numbers with their heart and their passion and dedication. You have fellas travelling from Wexford to go training, fellas travelling from Clare, from Limerick, and then a large number from Dublin as well. There are very little rewards other than the pride of playing for their county. I love being involved with an underdog. Things aren't just handed to these lads. They have to go and get them."

After opening defeats to Galway and Waterford, the prospect of a first win hovered for a time over their match with Cork in Mullingar last weekend. Defeated by 23 points by the same county in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals last year, the improvement was encouraging.

"The strange thing is we were quite confident, we were looking forward to it. Look, we didn't win and we won't ever celebrate a loss, however I was extremely pleased with the performance, the grafting, the heart. The biggest thing was that when goals went in heads didn't drop. I felt the mood in the camp was very positive and the lads were ambitious.

"It's clear for everybody to see that we are going in the right direction. We've made massive strides from a 17-point hammering, if you like, the first day, to running Waterford quite close. And then the last day getting very close to winning again. There is always the concern at the back of your head from the word go if we are good enough to compete at this level. But I think it's clear to see we are.

"At half-time in the dressing-room (against Cork) there was a real sense of belief that we could win. You can preach about winning matches but it has to be realistic as well. This wasn't a faraway unrealistic dream, this was a real opportunity. And you see it in the players' eyes - they believed they could win. And it was probably the first time I've seen that this year. I'd hope it would stand to us, without getting carried away now."

A gripe from last year was the six-day period allowed for the Joe McDonagh finalists to prepare for an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final, which he feels is inadequate. Social media and the potential for damage is also broached, an issue that troubles him.

"Society has become so concerned with being politically correct and we tend to get offended quite easily, yet we tolerate and accept abuse and nasty comments on social media that are directed towards others and especially amateur sportspeople.

"These people are spineless individuals who get a rush of power while hiding behind computer screens. It would make you wonder how someone can get a kick out of this behaviour. Perhaps it gives them a sense of self-importance or validation.

"It's also sad how much weight some people place on 'likes' or 'retweets', and what example is this setting when a grown adult craves 'likes' on social media?"

To matters more pleasant. His chance encounter with Brendan Rodgers led to an invitation to Glasgow to spend a day at Celtic's training base. As a child he travelled on different occasions to see Celtic play along with his father, Michael, leaving for Glasgow on a bus from O'Connell St at 4.30am. While reading a newspaper in a hotel in Castleknock a few years ago, he noticed his son, who was wearing an Antrim jersey, being spoken to by a man who turned out to be Rodgers. This led to their introduction and the invitation.

The visit fell on a Monday, two days after Celtic had beaten Rangers. He recalls being in a room with Rodgers and the stats guy coming in, running through the video analysis and poring over the match. "We were analysing the Rangers game that I was watching in a pub with my friends two days before. And he is asking me questions, like, what do you think of this?"

When he got back to Glasgow city centre he sat on a park bench and wrote down everything he could memorise from the day, filling up to ten A4 pages with notes.

Westmeath hurling is a different world, but this is his domain now. "People don't realise the small hurling community that exists within the county of Westmeath," he states. "The family histories. If you look back 32 years ago we had five parents involved with that last team to play in Division 1, names like Murtagh, Greville, Shaw, Doyle. There is huge history there but a very small community. Like, for example, there was a fella yesterday that had to get up at 5am to feed cattle and go to work, come back, get out to the farm, come training, go back home again and feed cattle again, and get up again the next morning. It is a very rural community."

In 2016 Westmeath's under-21s had a famous win over Kilkenny in the Leinster championship. Ten of that side are on the panel now. "Again," O'Brien says, "that shows you how tight and how close this group is. That is a day that will live long in their memory but we would like to make our own history."

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