'We need to take every opportunity'
Shane O'Neill says his Na Piarsaigh players are hard to manage because they are so ambitious
Last year a newspaper article claimed that Shane O'Neill was about to be appointed Limerick's senior hurling manager. He became aware of a similar news flash on Twitter and soon his phone went "ballistic" but the story was without foundation. He says he was never approached about the position. And he had no ambitions in that direction. He finds management interesting and a break from the day job but he has only ever managed Na Piarsaigh and almost certainly only ever will.
His playing career ended at 38 in a comprehensive county semi-final defeat by Kilmallock in 2012, having been part of the club's first ever senior championship win the previous year. When they lost to Kilmallock, their Munster title, won the previous autumn, went as well. When Seán Stack left after the 2014 All-Ireland club semi-final defeat by Portumna, Na Piarsaigh decided to trust one of their own as his successor. O'Neill was an obvious candidate, having managed the club under 21s to a number of county titles while still a player.
He was still relatively green for management though, certainly compared to Stack who left him two county championships and two Munster titles to try to emulate. In Stack's final year in management, O'Neill got his foot inside the door as a match analyst. "That gave me a flavour of what was involved," he says. "I wasn't involved with the selection or anything like that but I would do an aul' report after a match of whatever I saw, what I thought might be relevant."
In order to commit to management, to go that extra mile, he needed to be sure he had the team around him he wanted. Alan Cunningham came in as coach. Darragh Droog looked after strength and conditioning and the 2011 captain, Kieran Birmingham, joined as a selector. "I could not have asked for a better management team. We have a very good dynamic. We get on well. But we still have our own arguments and views on what needs to be done. I suppose we were finding our feet the first year. Kilmallock beat us in the county final. We were favourites but didn't perform, only played for ten minutes in the end. Kilmallock were the better team on the day, they deserved to win. We learned a lot from that."
Some of the players he had hurled with were still playing when he took over, presenting a difficulty. He wasn't a stranger but the role was new and only hard experience would teach him if he would be suited. "That was something I was conscious of," he admits. "To some extent you have to take a step back but your club is your club - you are not going to take a step back like an Alex Ferguson type of figure. They are still your club men. You socialise with them."
When asked what was different, he jokes that after matches one of their players, Kevin Ryan, "wouldn't be texting me to see where we were going. That was the biggest change." After the Portumna defeat and Stack's departure they didn't have much time to relaunch their next mission with the local championship starting inside two months. "In the first championship game, in fairness, they performed (defeating Kilmallock) and I knew we wouldn't have too much difficulty," explains O'Neill. "They beat us in the final later but it was a good start. There was a reaction to what we were doing.
"I suppose we got to the final without playing particularly well. We had a semi-final against Ahane and we won it by 25 points or something like that. Mightn't have been the best way going into the final, but similar maybe to beating Blackrock (in the recent Munster semi-final), you kinda wonder were we tested enough?"
Today brings a third Munster championship match with Ballygunner since 2011. They were the opposition in their first match in the province six years ago and over their three Munster campaigns, and what has passed of the fourth, Na Piarsaigh have never lost a provincial club game. They defeated Ballygunner in the final two years ago. "We were on the opposite side of the draw two years ago, playing Sixmilebridge and Thurles Sarsfields, like Ballygunner were this year," says O'Neill, "and we found it of great benefit." A comfortable win like they had against Blackrock tends to cause him worry about the impact on them, with Ballygunner coming through a harder route.
But the low-key start was compensated for in their second year, the club achieving unprecedented success in winning a first All-Ireland club title. The talent coming on stream is reflected in Na Piarsaigh having won seven of the last eight under 21 titles and also the last six in succession. There is no surpassing winning an All-Ireland for a club, except to win it again. But winning Limerick is the bottom line and it is never a given. Having won the All-Ireland in 2016, they lost the first two rounds of the local championship, the first round coming just six weeks after St Patrick's Day.
For a club that only went up to senior hurling after winning the intermediate in 1994, that was some climb. "I remember going up on the train (for the final) and they seemed relaxed and we were worried they might be too relaxed," O'Neill recalls. "Then on the bus they were really quiet and we wondered were they too quiet. But they were just in the zone that day. I remember (linesman) Barry Kelly turned to myself and Kieran Birmingham, we were standing on the sidelines beside him with about ten to go, and he said, 'Ye can relax now lads, ye have it'. We told him where to go, 'cos you just don't know. And we weren't there before." They defeated Cushendall by 11 points.
But the long campaign told and two early group defeats in Limerick meant the improvement that followed when they took a six-week break in the summer wasn't enough to retrieve the situation. "It was difficult," says O'Neill, "I remember saying before the first round of the (2016 Limerick) championship to the management, obviously not to the players, that I felt mentally exhausted. I couldn't imagine what the players felt like, because they had a physical tiredness as well."
They were eliminated by August, the earliest since 2010. While he was hurling with Limerick, O'Neill's club was still a relative lightweight, although beginning to make a mark in underage hurling. He says the success is down to increased population combined with terrific work by local coaches over the last 30 years. It won't last indefinitely. He knows that.
"Oh absolutely. I think that's what happened the players, there was a realisation last year that, look we are in this position, we are good enough to win more county titles and hopefully go further, and I suppose not performing last year, for various reasons, I think the penny maybe dropped with the long winter as well that, hold on a second, we need to take every opportunity that comes our way."
O'Neill is a partner in a legal firm Sweeney-McGann Solicitors which is also the team's sponsor. His father, though a Clare native, spent many years involved with teams in the club which was only founded in 1968. This he believes will be his final year, come what may. Working with players and trying to get the best out of them is one of his favourite aspects of the work he does.
"Well, you are dealing with around 30 very ambitious young men who all want to play and all want to perform. And you have the psychology of getting the best out of every single one of them. Including the guys who are not getting regular games and are mad for action, that kind of thing, to keep them all engaged. I think we have created that, with three or four fellas who have come in that there is a realisation that guys will be rewarded if they perform. We used 23 players in the championship to date which is a lot for a club team.
"They are all different. Different buttons need to be pressed with different guys. Like, we have said to them before, we have them only for five per cent of their time. They have a huge life outside of hurling. It's what they do when they are not with us. To make sure they look after themselves. But our fellas are in great nick, they do look after themselves - generally."
They aren't a difficult bunch to manage? "They are a difficult bunch to manage. Because they are all so ambitious and they all want more."
Two years ago both Na Piarsaigh and Ballygunner were missing key players. O'Neill recognises that they are facing a serious test. "We had played the previous week (in 2015) against Thurles Sarsfields, they were favourites for the All-Ireland at the time. I was very impressed with Ballygunner and I think they are better this year, the O'Mahonys (missing in 2015) are a massive addition. They are better; are we better or not? It is hard to tell; it will be very tight, I'd say."
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