ON the way out of Thurles after Tipperary's landslide victory in the All-Ireland under 21 final, Michael Cleary encountered Tommy Barrett, the former county secretary, now moving with the aid of a walking stick, an old school and sometimes irascible character.
"He doesn't do pleasantries," Cleary explains, but mention of the "great win" in Croke Park six days earlier moved him to make a lifetime declaration. He had seen his first All-Ireland in 1945 when Tipperary defeated Kilkenny and this year's was the pick of the lot. Cleary himself describes the few days after as being as good as he has ever felt following a blue and gold success.
Now imagine, if it is humanly possible, how Liam Sheedy felt, to stand exultant on this lofty pedestal mere months after being excoriated and profoundly doubted in the wake of Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the unravelling of everything he believed in and endorsed. This indignity heaped unceremoniously on all the standard pressure that comes with managing Tipperary. A heavenly day of deliverance such as Sheedy savoured on September 5 is preceded by numerous trials and crushing disappointments on the way. He leaves on a high, a winner; it is how he will be remembered and not a bad time to go in that respect.
Imagine how, if the undemonstrative and low-key Tommy Barrett can say September 5 has no equal, Eamon O'Shea felt that same day and the days since, having seen his work, the carefully developed strategies on the training ground, come to fruition under the hot lights. And Michael Ryan: how he must have felt, after all the hours he spent not knowing if it would all be truly worth it until that final whistle on September 5. Last year it is believed Ryan was seriously considering stepping down due to the pressures of the role and its impact on his family and career which, like Sheedy, is in banking. Had Tipperary lost again this year, they would have left without too much fuss and much less deliberation. But in the afterglow of such a monumental triumph we find it hard to understand how the heart failed to sway the head.
To break what must have been an incredibly close bond between the players and management had to be the greatest wrench of all. GAA players will often talk about the value they place on friendships made, as if the games facilitate that process and create a genuine kinship that has all the broody traits of family. Tipperary under Liam Sheedy liked to look on itself as a family and while the use of such terms can seem a little contrived at times the reality is nothing of the sort. What they forged together in those three years, coming out of the fractious haze of 2007, is beyond the glint of a medal and even the intoxicating adrenaline rush of the games themselves. It doesn't even require the oxygen of reunions and knocking on one another's doors. It is there and it will always be there even though next year another management team will be running the show.
Around a month before the All-Ireland final, Sheedy took on a new job at Bank of Ireland which entails much travelling, as far as Belfast and into various parts of the west. Hard as it had been to reconcile managing a team like Tipperary up to then with the demands of a young family and a busy banking job, this promotion made its continuance virtually impossible. Eamon O'Shea had some travel commitments abroad in the pipeline and Ryan had already expressed misgivings about the sheer time involved and viability of being able to fulfil a third year, let alone a fourth. In spite of the best efforts of the county board, the convergence of those realities made the end seem like the most sensible and correct option.
Will they miss it? Certainly. They are part of it now and that won't change because they have cut ties. The performance coach that Sheedy enlisted, Caroline Currid, heard the news on Wednesday. She says earnestly that Sheedy could only apply himself 100 per cent at any task, be it career or management, nothing less -- there could be no trade-off. "I think it was a big surprise that he stepped down, even if understandable with his work commitments -- he has a huge passion for hurling. He thinks the world of them lads. In every sense it was a family. For him to pull away from that, it was very difficult for him. He was a fantastic facilitator and the lads will miss him a lot. He did not make that decision lightly."
Naturally, there is a tendency to look south towards the Marble City and see the comparatively North Korean-like longevity enjoyed by Brian Cody. But the comparison doesn't take. Sheedy has a young family; Cody's family is raised. Sheedy has started a job that entails long journeys; Cody is happily domiciled in Kilkenny, minutes from the training ground, and his work as a school principal is management-friendly. That is not to say Cody has it handy or is to be found ruminating on his hammock when the New Year rolls into view surrounded by his minions. But few are capable of spending more than a few years at the job because of family and careers.
At the time of Cody's appointment, for example, Michael Bond was in charge of Offaly and the same county were All-Ireland champions. Since then they have had six changes of management. Clare have had five. Cork have seen seven changes, Limerick topping the class with eight. The next Tipp appointment will be the sixth over the same time period. So three years can be regarded as a decent innings. It is just the circumstances of exiting as winners, and the proximity to September 5, that has caused such a jolt.
"I met him (Sheedy) three weeks before the All-Ireland," says Michael Cleary, "and wondered how people do these jobs; you are not your own person. Liam himself said it was hugely important to have good people around you and he seemed to be genuinely enjoying it." He probably was but at that time he was in the narrow vision tunnel of preparing for a match he felt could redeem Tipperary for the lost opportunity in 2009. The next season, and what he might do, didn't enter the equation. Those considerations may as well not have existed.
The 16-hour days which were mentioned as a factor in the decision of the management team to stand down is difficult for those not directly involved to fully comprehend. Currid talks about how thorough Sheedy, O'Shea and Ryan were at connecting with players. "They got to know them individually and the time they spent doing that is phenomenal. Nobody would know that. Several times Eamon O'Shea came down from Galway on a Saturday to take a couple of them aside and coach them individually, outside of training time, the same with Liam. And no one would know.
"You could have training at half seven and Eamon could be there at six and leave at 11 -- often's the night I left them talking at half ten at night and Eamon still having to travel back to Galway and lecture at nine in the morning."
She trusts that the county board will take great care in appointing a capable successor. "I know they will consult the senior players and may even consult Liam and if they get that right they will be fine, the talent is there."
Michael Cleary looks at the forward line Tipp has now and sees no reason why an indifferent league might not leave any one of them vulnerable to the claims of the next six challengers. They have players ready to step in at that level, the kind of competition and depth that Kilkenny have enjoyed and which has been the bedrock of their success. But Cleary feels that the new management team will need to plough its own furrow. While the county PRO Ger Ryan talks of the "template" being already in place, Cleary sees a need for the next management team to follow its own gut instincts and strengths. They cannot try to ape those who have gone before them.
Speculation is rife, naturally, as to who will follow and at its forefront is Tommy Dunne, a possible coach, having been extremely popular and well received in that role with the county under 21s this year. A good scattering of the same under 21s, of course, have already trousered Celtic Crosses. Dunne has given the impression in the past that he would be more inclined towards coaching rather than front-line management. Declan Ryan, his partner at minor level three years ago, is touted as a possible replacement. But it is a big jump and not for everybody.
Ger Ryan and his county board associates feel confident they know the kind of people they want to carry on the good work and capitalise on Tipperary's thriving underage industry. "It's been a wonderful three years," says Ger Ryan, "a marvellous experience in the hurling sense and personal sense. I really couldn't speak highly enough of it. Hugely beneficial and positive, they have been wonderful."
No harder act to follow.