Monday 21 January 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Managing expectations in a Munster cauldron'

Premier boss Sheedy and joint Clare chiefs Moloney and O'Connor may have their eyes on bigger prizes but there is a very real pressure on both sets of management to deliver silverware, and tomorrow in Limerick would be a good start

Clare are again managed this year by (left) Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor. Photo: Sportsfile
Clare are again managed this year by (left) Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Clare's modern hurling relationship with Tipperary, even the shadow-boxing has a capacity to exercise rogue hormones.

Five years ago, tomorrow's equivalent between the counties - a Waterford Crystal Cup final in Limerick - threw Davy Fitzgerald into a rage that he recalls as "the worst I've ever lost my temper in a dressing-room".

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The reason? A second-half surrender from his newly-crowned All-Ireland champions that maybe carried just too many echoes of Clare's occasionally subservient past.

Fitzgerald's inter-county career as a player had surfed those epochal years when Clare-Tipp changed from a routinely unequal quarrel into hurling's hottest ticket.

So even the tiniest suspicion of a softening in Banner minds now was never going to find gentle acceptance from the Sixmilebridge legend.

In his book, 'At All Costs', Fitzgerald recalls: "I had a hurley in my hand as I came in the door and, if I'm honest, began swinging it at anything in front of me. I hit gear bags, boots, the clothes pegs on the wall. Honestly, I was vicious."

Liam Sheedy is back at the helm of Tipp who tomorrow bid to secure the first trophy of the season at the expense of Clare. Photo: Sportsfile
Liam Sheedy is back at the helm of Tipp who tomorrow bid to secure the first trophy of the season at the expense of Clare. Photo: Sportsfile

Fitzgerald's concern was that Clare were just one week away from opening their National League campaign with a visit from Brian Cody's Kilkenny to Ennis. If they took no offence now from a heavy defeat to Tipp of all people, then they'd forgotten the necessary terms of engagement in their new world.

It might take quite a leap of the imagination to think of Donal Moloney or Gerry O'Connor's vexation levels climbing to that altitude in the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow, especially given Clare's looming National League trip to Thurles this evening two weeks.

Yet, the Munster League final is still sure to have a robust pulse. Liam Sheedy's second coming as Tipp manager got the perfect launch on December 13 with a defeat of All-Ireland champions Limerick on their own field and nobody in his squad now needs to be reminded that their 2018 season was ended by a first Thurles championship loss to Clare in 90 years.

Their earliest eviction from summer activity in two decades prefaced Michael Ryan's departure and, ultimately, Sheedy's surprise comeback.

That return has come to the accompaniment of new sponsors Teneo, the New York-based consultancy and investment banking platform co-founded by Sheedy's old Portroe friend, Declan Kelly. Whatever resources Tipp might be found lacking in this year, financial support won't be one of them.

Yet, even in isolation, Sheedy's return was always likely to ignite a certain giddiness.

The dressing-room revolution established en route to winning the 2010 All-Ireland was maybe best reflected in the response of some players to news of Sheedy's decision to step down within weeks of ending Kilkenny's bid for an historic five-in-a-row.

Brendan Cummins recalled "almost fainting with the shock", admitting in his autobiography 'Standing My Ground' that it was "like hearing the news that somebody had died - and if that sounds like an exaggeration, it's not. I felt physically sick."

Lar Corbett admitted crying after receiving the news from team-mate Eoin Kelly. "It was like a family had broken up," recalled Corbett in his book 'All In My Head.'

Such exhortations maybe lose their impression of melodrama when set into the context of what followed for Tipp. After Sheedy's departure, it took three changes of management before Ryan guided them back to the mountain top in 2016.

Through that time and beyond, Sheedy admits that there was always "something tugging" at him to return.

He has put in place an all North Tipp coaching ticket of Tommy Dunne and Darragh Egan and early impressions of new strength and conditioning coach Cairbre O'Caireallan have - it seems - been uniformly positive. The former Antrim hurler worked with Arsenal since 2015 and also has coaching experience with the Limerick hurling academy that produced so many of last August's senior heroes.

Sheedy is also expected to add a third selector in the coming weeks and maybe a measure of his determination to make an early impact can be taken from the fact that Tipp overnighted in Nenagh's Abbey Court Hotel after that December victory over Limerick, training the following morning.

"For me, there's no risk here," he declared after his appointment in September.

But that, of course, isn't strictly true. Sheedy's status in Tipp was cut in stone after that 2010, but he returns at a time of serious concerns about the standard of club hurling in the county, maybe italicised by Clonoulty-Rossmore's 18-point loss to Limerick champions Na Piarsaigh in the Munster Club SHC semi-final.

And there was something jarringly defensive about this week's directive precluding goalkeeper Brian Hogan from discussing Tipp matters at a promotional event for the Higher Education Championships, when no such restriction was put on Limerick's Seamus Flanagan or Dublin's David Treacy (at a separate event) the same day.

Sheedy will know too that improved underage structures in Limerick and Clare especially have brought an end to any sense of an inferiority complex within those counties when facing Munster's traditional oligarchs.

Clare's three consecutive All-Ireland U-21 victories under Moloney and O'Connor and the senior triumph in 2013 under Fitzgerald spawned a generation of Banner hurlers for whom the opposition's jersey colour will never be a source of dread.

With that, too, however comes impatience. After the 2013 senior win, some imagined that Clare's possession game had set a new template for all to follow, yet last summer's drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Galway was their first championship visit to Croke Park in the subsequent years. And those two games against Galway last year maybe aptly synopsised Clare's reasons for frustration.

In Croke Park, they'd fallen nine points behind before rescuing the game through the deployment of a sweeper (Colm Galvin). In Thurles, they again fell nine points behind even with the sweeper in place.

Moloney was palpably unimpressed afterwards by any suggestion of Clare being slow starters, preferring to give credit instead to "magnificent play" from Galway.

Yet, Clare had whittled the Tribesmen's lead down to a single point in Thurles when substitute Aron Shanagher's 68th-minute Killinan-end effort spooned up off goalkeeper James Skehill, only for his follow-up shot to then snap back off a post. That same day, they leaked 19 wides against the then All-Ireland champions. It was that fine a line for Clare last summer.

So Moloney and O'Connor will, presumably, be looking for more evennness in the team's hurling this season, albeit that seems a work in progress judging on the path taken to tomorrow's final, a two-point victory over Cork (Clare coming from six down at half-time) and a one-point victory over Waterford (Clare leading by 11 points inside 26 minutes).

Maybe the stand-out find thus far has been Cratloe's Diarmuid Ryan whose 0-6 return from play against Waterford suggests he can carry on the family mantle for his sadly retired brother, Conor.

Questions

To be fair, only Billy Nolan's excellence in goal for Waterford kept them in last weekend's contest and there is certainly a sense that Clare have the capacity to be big players in 2019.

They will be without Harvard student Shane O'Donnell until the end of March and some questions remain over David Reidy's availability. But Moloney and O'Connor have a palpably strong hand, one they know probably now needs to deliver some kind of silverware.

A curious aspect to Tipp's All-Ireland win in the last ever U--21 championship last August was the absence of star individuals in Liam Cahill's squad.

Their spirited defeat of Munster conquerors Cork was very much a victory for the collective, so it remains a moot point if any of Cahill's starting 15 will get prominent game-time under Sheedy in the coming months.

The first trophy he won as Tipp manager was the 2008 equivalent of tomorrow's prize and he will be keen now to sustain the positivity engendered by his return. But Clare won't exactly be deferential opponents in Limerick. He knows that.

Truth to tell, they never will be again.

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