Thursday 22 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Sheedy's return appears to have revitalised the magician's instinct within Bubbles'

Munster final focus

The improvement in the form of John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s has coincided with Liam Sheedy’s return to the Tipperary helm. Photo: INPHO
The improvement in the form of John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s has coincided with Liam Sheedy’s return to the Tipperary helm. Photo: INPHO
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In the summer of 2010, Liam Sheedy seeded Tipperary's training games with assorted interns from outside. If he wanted heat, he knew a few club men who'd provide it free of any recklessness. Fast hands and feet? Ken Hogan's formidable U-21s. The trick was to simulate every potential challenge; anticipate any likely puzzle looming.

One of those who got game-time in Morris Park was 17-year-old John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer. Maybe the youngest of Hogan's panel, but already a talent so luminously precocious that his nights among Sheedy's seniors carried the palpable air of rehearsal.

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In their company, the Killenaule kid betrayed zero anxiety. As Seamus Hennessy, a member of both the senior and U-21 All-Ireland-winning squads that year, puts it: "I don't think his confidence levels were ever going to be an issue. He knew what he had in him!"

It would be three years before O'Dwyer was deemed ready for the fury of senior championship, a half-time replacement in Tipp's 2013 Munster semi-final defeat to Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds. One month later, he played the entirety of their All-Ireland qualifier loss to Kilkenny at a fulminating Nowlan Park.

Tipp's summer finished after two games then, yet O'Dwyer's respective scoring contributions (1-3 and 0-3) confirmed the arrival of a blue-chip attacking option for then manager Eamon O'Shea.

Since then, O'Dwyer has been involved in all bar one of Tipp's championship contests (albeit he was deployed only as a 73rd-minute substitute in last year's Munster loss to Clare) - missing the 2016 Munster final against Waterford through suspension.

In other words, Bubbles has now played in 28 championship games over seven seasons, during which he has scored 4-94 - 4-80 from play. That equates to an average return of just under four points per game.

This despite a wretched 2018 in which he played only one full championship game (against Limerick), came on as a substitute in two others (Cork and Clare) and was replaced after 46 minutes against Waterford.

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For Tipp, last year felt like an important fork in the road. With Michael Ryan stepping away after nearly a decade of involvement on the management side, the choice of replacement was going to be critical for a dressing room full of high achievers. Maybe for Bubbles especially.

Dropped

His struggles at county level carried over into the South Tipp Championship when he was dropped for Killenaule's opening game against Carrick Swans on disciplinary grounds.

Eddie Brennan, the eight-time All-Ireland-winning Kilkenny forward now managing Laois, had taken up a temporary coaching role with Killenaule on the invitation of manager Declan Ryan. His impression of O'Dwyer at the time was of a player arriving at "a crossroads".

Brennan explains: "He'd been in a little bit of a freefall with Tipp, maybe with everything, for a year or two. And the first thing I would have felt was that he was nowhere near as fit as he needed to be to be a county player.

"Now in fairness, when we were doing any drills, his application was always top quality. And when he was left off the team that time, he just took his medicine and turned it around. But Bubbles is an enigmatic kind of fella . . . and he's had his moments. I suppose everybody has times where they just want to blow off steam. That doesn't excuse everything.

"I'd say he needs a strong guidance and, for me, Liam Sheedy's return has probably provided a very firm set of objectives for John O'Dwyer. Something along the lines of: 'This is your focus, but, first of all, you need to get fit!' Like I said, Bubbles was at a crossroads. It was either shape up, get yourself right or this thing is going to move on without you."

The physical transformation of Tipp under the strength and conditioning baton of former Antrim hurler Cairbre Ó Cairealláin has been self-evident this year; the change in O'Dwyer's conditioning maybe particularly visible. Casual estimates suggest he is at least a stone lighter today than at the same time last summer.

That fitness, allied to his deployment as a loosely anchored centre-forward, have facilitated a storming return to form in all four of Tipp's Munster Championship games so far. For Hennessy, another factor has been important too.

"I think he's revelling in a coaching structure that is very strongly forward-based," suggests the Kilruane MacDonaghs player, referencing the renewed involvement of O'Shea, Tommy Dunne and the recent recruitment of Eoin Kelly.

"I remember seeing a photograph from one of Tipp's warm-ups this year, Bubbles with the helmet on, Liam Sheedy near him, both of them laughing," says Hennessy. "They're obviously sharing some bit of a joke or whatever before the game. For me, that signified somebody who was absolutely confident, who was ready to go.

"I think for top, top forwards who have his kind of genius in them, it's a massive mental support to be able to say, 'I'm playing with freedom, I'm not chained to anything. The weight of the world isn't upon my shoulders.'"

"And you can see that in Bubbles now. You're not looking at Tipperary saying, 'Well, if Bubbles doesn't do it today, we can't win!' In the vein that you might be looking at Kilkenny and TJ Reid. With Tipp so far in Munster, we've had four games and four different forwards winning man of the match."

Use of the word 'genius' isn't unusual in assessments of O'Dwyer. Yet discipline has been an occasional issue too. Former Cork captain Pat Mulcahy - his Fitzgibbon coach at Cork IT - has suggested O'Dwyer to be someone "who needs a strong hand".

And, in his autobiography 'The Warrior's Code', Jackie Tyrrell writes of a Kilkenny belief that they "could get at" O'Dwyer.

He suggested witheringly that Bubbles was "another genius who could nearly make the ball talk, but he was as flaky as any of them".

He was shown two straight red cards inside five months during 2016, first in a Fitzgibbon Cup game against Jordanstown and then just 14 minutes into Tipp's Munster semi-final win. Then Tipp manager Ryan described the latter as "a half-second of madness", but did not start O'Dwyer when he was available again for the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway.

Sheedy's return, though, appears to have revitalised the magician's instinct within Bubbles. In Brennan's eyes, that constitutes good news - for hurling in general.

"Regardless of what jerseys lads wear, I think you want to see a guy that has that skill level," adds Brennan. "You think: 'Right, this is the time for a guy like him to kick on and have that four or five years.'

"I've seen it with Seamie Callanan, I've seen it with Richie Hogan; different players where you get a five-year burst. Paudie Maher, to me, is now maybe at year four or five of that cycle, where he's just on top of everything, psychologically and physically. Maybe Bubbles is coming into that now.

"He's getting a bit older, he should be maturing, he should be getting a little bit more sensible. I would imagine there was a one-on-one conversation with Liam Sheedy where he very clearly set that out. And that can be the way with flawed geniuses.

"Because what I saw when we'd be doing different drills or even playing games, his skill level, his hurling brain, the speed of it, his vision, his awareness, were all as good as anything I've ever played with. When the guy is dialled in, he's phenomenal."

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