Tuesday 16 July 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'How Seamus Callanan developed from underachiever to Tipperary's most dangerous weapon'

Saturday profile

Seamie Callanan is determined to make his mark this year after a season hopelessly compromised by back surgery in 2018. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Seamie Callanan is determined to make his mark this year after a season hopelessly compromised by back surgery in 2018. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The hope in Tipperary is that the second coming of Seamie Callanan is still in its first act.

Because Liam Sheedy's choice of captain for 2019 felt as much a statement as a choice. After all, if there's always been a touch of Hollywood about Callanan's game, nobody understood the fragilities within more acutely than the Portroe man. It's 11 years since Sheedy introduced him to the bear-pit of a senior inter-county stage; nine since he seemed to be communicating a loss of faith.

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Callanan, remember, stopped making Tipp's starting 15 that summer of 2010 when they, finally, out-ran Kilkenny to the mountain-top.

Famously, he delivered a selfless speech at the last training session before that All-Ireland final, promising that he would give the team "some lift" when introduced off the bench. And Callanan duly did, scoring two classy points in the final quarter.

But this was no epiphany.

One year later, he was replaced at half-time by new manager Declan Ryan in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. And, in 2012, Callanan had no on-field involvement in the infamous semi-final collapse to Brian Cody's men.

Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

To be fair, there would be collarbone and ankle breaks through this period too, yet nobody was in much doubt that a career, once crackling with possibility, had somehow run aground. Callanan, clearly, remained a precocious talent. But in the plain-speaking, rough, tough environment of inter-county hurling, bull-strength can often carry more purchase than sorcery.

In a sense, 2011, '12 and '13 are the lost years of Seamie Callanan's inter-county hurling life then. A time when it seemed a moot point whether or not Tipp's interest in him might even break.

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He did captain Drom-Inch to their first ever senior county title in 2011, yet there was as an impression of something weighing down on him in blue and gold. Clubmate and former inter-county team-mate James Woodlock has a theory.

"For me, it was really only when Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett departed the scene that Seamie felt a bit of a release with Tipp," suggests Woodlock. "Because he needs to be the focal point all the time. And he has turned into that for Tipp now. He knows now that he's the main man and he has to perform.

"But he was living in the shadow of Eoin and Lar for a long time.

"It could have gone either way for him, but he stayed with it. And the more experienced Tipp players would have been good to him. Eoin would have been outstanding to him, as would the likes of Paul Curran and Brendan Cummins. He'd never have been let fall off the track with those leaders on his side."

Still, there was a huge requirement for self-help too and the evidence of Callanan's commitment to that path is visible in his physique now. He has become what Woodlock describes as "a monster of a man". Most probably, he had to.

Because Curran, a two time All-Star defender, tells a story that maybe runs to the heart of Callanan's reluctant progress as an inter-county hurler.

They were marking one another in a club game around 2011 or '12, Drom-Inch leading Mullinahone comfortably. "But I was marking Seamie and felt I was getting the better of him," Curran recalled this week.

"And at one stage, I said to him, 'Jesus, come on Seamie, like it's not good enough you winning one ball, then taking a break for three or four and I win them all. There's more in you...'

"I mean I remember Eoin Kelly talking to him. And Larry. A good few people, but he just wasn't at a stage where he was, maybe, ready to adjust. It took him a while to actually cop on and adjust to what was required to be a top senior inter-county hurler, to connect up all the dots and say to himself, 'Hold on here, the harder I work, the better I perform.'

"In the early stages, he wasn't bothered with the hard, physical graft. And that showed because he was inconsistent. His stamina used go against him. He'd go for one (ball), then he'd need to take a break.

"You knew you'd get the better of him in a physical battle."

Curran believes the defining change in Callanan came during Eamon O'Shea's management of Tipp. With a transformed work ethic, he would have some riotous days under O'Shea's baton: (3-6 against Kilkenny in the '14 National League; 3-8 against Galway in a '14 All-Ireland qualifier; 3-9 against Galway again in the '15 All-Ireland semi-final).

Little wonder, then Galway manager Anthony Cunningham described him as "probably unmarkable." Which became a growing consensus on the training-ground now too.

As Curran recalls: "Once he started working in the gym, building himself up, it really hit home to me that he was a different animal in 2014. With his size, he'd become intimidating.

"I struggled to get back in that year and a lot of the time I would have been on the 'B' team in training, which meant I'd be marking Seamie on the 'A's. And he'd actually hurt you in some of the tackles.

"I also noticed he was probably the player that was in the most scraps in Tipp training through '14 and '15. Between Conor O'Brien, myself, Mikey Breen, there wasn't a night went by when Seamie didn't start fighting with one of us. That was a real shift in him. He kind of said, 'I'm not going to be bullied here anymore!'

"He was taking no punishment off us. He was nearly delving out the punishment instead."

The change in Callanan is italicised by three successive All-Star awards and three Hurler of the Year nominations between '14 and '16. And his astonishing 0-9 return from play against Kilkenny in the '16 All-Ireland final stands as, arguably, the greatest individual scoring feat ever witnessed on hurling's biggest day.

It was, as Tipp manager Michael Ryan succinctly put it, "outrageous".

For Woodlock, that though was a day that had been brewing. "He wasn't respected by Kilkenny in that final," he says bluntly. "They thought they could just put one player on him and give him the free run of Croke Park. And he revelled in that lack of respect.

"For a couple of years I suppose he'd felt a bit weighed down by Kilkenny backs. You could maybe put a Jackie Tyrrell on him, someone who could frighten him and put him out of the game. But now he was so big, you might manage it for ten or 15 minutes, but he'd stay coming and coming and eventually get on top of you.

"And he just punished and punished and punished them that day. He really enjoyed tearing them apart."

Sheedy clearly sees a different player today to the one he seemed to have lost trust in nine years ago. And it's doubtful if anything pleased the new Tipp manager more about last Saturday's defeat of Clare than the sight of his captain chasing David McInerney 70 yards to deny the opposition a score on his own '45'.

After a season hopelessly compromised by back surgery in 2018, Seamie Callanan looks ready to prove that history waits for those men worth the time.

As Woodlock puts it: "Those bleak years, Seamie didn't have a settled job, he had college going on. It was all hurling, hurling, hurling. He had nothing else.

"He's way more stable in his life now, more mature, has a good job, is in a steady relationship, he has things outside of hurling that get him more relaxed. And you know something? I think he's hungrier for hurling with Tipp now than he's ever been."

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