Saturday 7 December 2019

Qualifier could be career-defining for losing manager

Bosses know it's win or bust time

Tipperary manager Eamonn O'Shea, left, and Galway manager Anthony Cunningham shake hands after their National Hurling League match last year. Picture credit: Ray Ryan / SPORTSFILE
Tipperary manager Eamonn O'Shea, left, and Galway manager Anthony Cunningham shake hands after their National Hurling League match last year. Picture credit: Ray Ryan / SPORTSFILE

The historical dimension for Tipperary and Galway may have eluded Eamon O'Shea and Anthony Cunningham as they deal with the immediate demands of preparing for Saturday's All-Ireland hurling qualifier clash in Thurles, but there will be no escaping its significance afterwards for the losers.

A Tipperary defeat would be their fifth successive championship loss, a run never previously endured by the county while a Galway defeat would sentence them to their earliest championship exit since 1969.

It's unlikely either manager could survive that sort of setback so there's no doubt the biggest threat to their continued stewardship will lurk in the opposing dressing-room in two days' time.

Tipperary have lost four successive championship games since powering past Waterford in the Munster final two years ago and, while the first was under Declan Ryan in 2012 All-Ireland semi-final (v Kilkenny), O'Shea was in charge for the last three defeats (v Limerick and Kilkenny last year and v Limerick last month).

Tipperary have gone much longer than two seasons without winning a championship game over the years but have never been hit for five straight defeats. They failed to win any games in the 1974-82 championships but draws in 1975-77-81 kept their losing sequence to a maximum of four games.

SEQUENCE

The four-match losing run occurred in the 1977-80 Munster championships but a draw against Limerick in 1981 interrupted the dismal sequence, even if Tipperary lost the replay. Defeat in the provincial championships brought the end of the All-Ireland road for every county back then.

The last time Galway were eliminated from the championship by the first week in July was in 1969. They lost to Cork in late June that year, a defeat which ended the decade-long experiment which saw Galway play in the Munster championship.

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The historical context adds to the intrigue of Saturday's clash, where both managers are facing a genuine test of their skills.

After a haphazard Division 1A campaign where they needed a win over Dublin in the final group to avoid a relegation play-off with Waterford, Tipperary put together three fine performances against Cork, Clare and Kilkenny, beating both of their Munster rivals and taking Kilkenny to extra-time before losing by a point in the final.

It seemed to leave Tipperary perfectly set up for the Munster semi-final clash with Limerick in Thurles but, after taking a three-point lead into the closing minutes, they were hit for 1-2. It was yet another example of flakiness in the squad's psyche, which has undermined them regularly in recent seasons.

It manifested itself in three group league games last spring when Tipperary surrendered a 10-point lead and lost by six to Kilkenny and they were hit for three goals in the first half by both Clare and Galway. All three setbacks were followed immediately by cheerily upbeat assessments from O'Shea, suggesting he was drawing on a broader canvas than what was immediately apparent.

"I'm not happy that we got beaten but I am happy that we are trying to play the game the way we want it," he said after the 5-20 to 5-14 defeat by Kilkenny.

"I'm trying to get the lads to enjoy what they're doing and if they do, they can play better," remarked O'Shea after the defeat by Clare.

"You probably won't believe me but we had a very good week in training but when we get out on the pitch (on match day) we seem to become very edgy. Figuring that out is down to me," he said after the Galway game.

Three straight wins and a narrow defeat followed, suggesting that O'Shea had sorted out the problems, only for them to return against Limerick.

Losing a three-point lead late on was a major setback, once again raising the question of why they find it so difficult to close out games.

"It's an issue. We are very close to finishing it out but very close doesn't count in sport," said O'Shea.

O'Shea will have had almost five weeks to work on all elements of Tipperary's game plan, prior to despatching the updated version into action on Saturday.

In contrast, Cunningham has had to cram a lot into this week as Galway attempt to recover from the negative impact of last Saturday's eight-point defeat by Kilkenny. His biggest conundrum centres on why some key players who did well in the drawn clash six days earlier were stuck on the margins in the replay. They include Joe Canning and Niall Burke, who between them scored 3-5 in the drawn game, but returned only 0-1 last Saturday.

Collectively, Galway's performance level dropped too, driven down by Kilkenny's greater pressure.

But then, inconsistency has been the hallmark of Galway for so long that it's now almost part of the brand. Cunningham appeared to have zapped it when Galway turned three excellent displays in consecutive games in 2012, beating and drawing with Kilkenny in the Leinster and All-Ireland finals, while out-gunning Cork in between. However, that was followed by a last quarter cave-in against Kilkenny in the final replay.

With the exception of last Sunday week, Galway have been sloppy in the 2013-14 championships. In addition, they suffer from serious 'bleeding' in most games.

Other top sides succeed in minimising the damage when the flow is against them, whereas it's quite common for Galway to concede upwards of seven scores without reply during a particularly bad spell.

Cunningham talked last Saturday of "bottling the hurt" from the Kilkenny defeat but if that were the answer, Galway would have been much more successful last year and again this season.

He also suggested that playing on the following weekend after losing a championship game can be exploited as a positive, although history doesn't tend to support that view. Now in his third term as Galway manager, he is facing a huge test. A win would re-ignite the season while defeat would represent a further decline on last year, which was disappointing after coming so close to All-Ireland glory in 2012.

O'Shea's term was extended by two years last autumn so, irrespective of how Tipperary fare, he can continue for another season. Whether he would want to if Tipperary hadn't won a single championship game in two years under his watch is another matter.

It makes Saturday's clash a potential career-definer for both men.

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