Liam Sheedy Irish Times Interview

PROFILE TIPPERARY HURLING MANAGER LIAM SHEEDY : In his first year in charge, Liam Sheedy took Tipperary to league and Munster championship titles. Ian O’Riordan wonders what is in store for the Premier County this season.

IN A magazine interview shortly before playing the 1997 All-Ireland hurling final, Liam Sheedy was asked how he would like to be remembered: “A friendly person that gets on well with everyone,” he answered.

Interesting choice of words. It possibly sounded a little flippant at the time; now it makes more sense. In many ways, Sheedy’s first year as Tipperary hurling manager will be remembered for him leading them on an unbeaten league and championship run all the way to the All-Ireland semi-final, only to be unexpectedly undone by Waterford.

In other ways, his first year as manager will be remembered for the harmony and camaraderie that he brought back to the team – and that was at least partly based on him being a friendly person that gets on well with everyone.

It’s no secret that cracks had developed in Tipperary’s hurling unity the previous few years, and much of their success in 2008 was down to Sheedy’s honest, open and no-nonsense approach to management that helped seal up those cracks.

It was the same approach he took to his playing career.

Although Sheedy debuted for Tipperary in the league on 1989, it was eight years later, 1997, before he made his championship start.

Yet, throughout the intervening years he’d earned the reputation for being a hardy, tenacious defender with his club Portroe.

Tough as nails, as they say in the business.

At 5ft 10in and a little over 12st his strength was his commitment. When former Tipperary All-Ireland winner Len Gaynor took over as manager in 1996 he went looking for that extra bit of steel, and didn’t need to look beyond Sheedy.

Although Tipperary lost that 1997 All-Ireland to Clare, narrowly, there was no faulting their unyielding wing back.

“As a player he was always very dependable,” recalls Gaynor. “Dogged, and very determined, and someone you could always rely on. You could always trust him to give his all. He was a fine wing back, an honest player.

“He was always very down to earth as well, and I think he’s brought that trust into management. He’s honest with his players, straight up with them. There’s no nonsense with Liam. He’s up front about everything and they’re all good traits to have as a manager. You have to deal openly with things because the modern player wants that as well.

“Liam doesn’t beat around the bush in any way, and players like that. They like to be told where they stand. So I’m not at all surprised he has transferred so well to management. I suppose he was through the mill quite a bit as a player, so he has a good background, well grounded.”

Although Sheedy did win a league title with Tipperary in 1999 he retired the following year. His progress into management, like his playing days, was steady, and started with the Tipperary intermediate team, which he took to the All-Ireland title in 2000.

From there he took over the Tipperary minors, the obvious highpoint being the All-Ireland win of 2006 – the county’s first minor title in a decade.

As he settles into his second year as senior manager, Sheedy seems increasingly more comfortable in the position. He talked openly about the ambitions for the year at this week’s Allianz league launch in the sort of engaging manner that reflects his idea of how to be remembered.

“I do enjoy being manager and I know the day I stop enjoying it is the day I stop doing it. I enjoy working with people, young lads trying to be the best they can be, every day that they train, and every day that they play. As a manager that’s all you can ask for.

“I’m blessed with the backroom team I have as well in terms of what they bring to the overall set-up. It’s an enjoyable place to be. I’m lucky as well in that I work for Bank Of Ireland Life, and they’re very good to me, in allowing me to do the role. And it’s probably getting harder for them now because it is a tough environment.

“But then, going into training probably lifts some of the doom and gloom. You see guys that just want to hurl, play for Tipp, just want to be as good as they possibly can be. That’s heartening in itself.”

That was the story of Tipperary hurling for most of last year; playing the best they could. It served them well in the league and Munster championship – winning two much-needed trophies – but then deserted them a little bit in the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford.

And the more Sheedy reflects on that game, the more the sense of regret emerges.

“We never set targets last year in terms of trophies. That’s a foolish place to go. We set a target of being competitive in the league, trying to make the knock-out stages. We got there, got three very competitive matches, and I think done well to win it.

“And that stood to us. It was a good platform on which to build for the championship. We had a very shaky start against Cork, but found our feet, and that victory steeled us that little bit for Clare. We got a good start that day, and then got back to Croke Park.

“And I suppose that really was our aim, to get back to Croke Park. But having got there we were disappointed at the way it finished. It was a score that could have gone either way. We’d a few chances in the second half as well, but it’s not the first semi-final to end that way. I’d been watching Waterford against Cork in the last few years in some epic battles.”

Yet, it was painfully close – Waterford winning 1-20 to 1-18 when the advantage refused to settle in any direction until the final whistle. And it seems part of the regret is that Sheedy didn’t get a crack at Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.

“I think maybe we were a bit unlucky. We’d a slow start, but you learn from days like that. But we felt our form going in was good. We felt we had trained well. We had a few injuries coming up that probably didn’t help. But we didn’t start the way we wanted to start.

“Like we wanted to get to the All-Ireland final. We never felt we’d enough done. We wanted to get there. And we would have looked forward to playing Kilkenny.

“Any time you play sport you want to pit yourself against the best. The reality is Kilkenny are the best, and have raised the bar again. The challenge for us is to get up to that bar, and unless you play them, you don’t know where you are versus the bar.

“If we come back with the same level of commitment and enthusiasm again, I think we can be as competitive again in 2009. And from what I’ve seen in the first few weeks of January the enthusiasm is still there among the lads. We’re having a bit of a rough run at the moment with injuries, but this is the time to get them.”

Tomorrow’s league opener at least offers them the chance to get some revenge on Waterford, although naturally Sheedy is looking well beyond it. The retirement of Eamonn Corcoran has left one obvious gap to fill, and he’s also quite clear about the areas that need working on.

“It’s fairly clear that we have struggled in the half forward line sector. That has been our Achilles’ heel, the area where we probably need to get more possession, and feed more ball into what I consider to be a very capable inside forward line.

“That’s probably where we fell down last year. We still had good performances there. Séamus Callanan got nominated for young hurler of the year. John O’Brien got man of the match in the Munster final, with 1-4.

“But teams are very well disciplined these days and you have to try to break them down, with the ability to retain your own ball. That’s critical.

“We just need to find some more consistency in our half forward line, but also make sure all the other areas continue to deliver as well as they have. And find a few new players as well.

“The fact we have so many guys with injuries there are guys that are going to get jerseys during the league that maybe didn’t see a jersey before, even though they thought they might. It’s their opportunity to impress, like the guys who went in last year with their chance to impress.”

Gaynor is still a thoroughly keen observer of Tipperary hurling, and believes Sheedy has both the temperament and talents at hand to improve on 2008.

“I think there is more to come under Sheedy. Well there must be. You couldn’t fault them on the Munster championship last year. They just didn’t quite get the best out of themselves against Waterford. The first task obviously is to repeat that. Then to improve again. But they’ve got that year experience now.

“They have the quality players. It’s important they have another good league, but you’d have to believe there is more there.”

Unlike last year, however, Sheedy is likely to be in more experimental mode for the league. Willie Ryan will start tomorrow as team captain, and the retirement of Corcoran has left more than just the number five shirt vacant.

“The challenge for us is not just to find another Eamonn Corcoran. Guys like Eamonn don’t come around often. If someone wanted a role model for Tipperary hurling over the last 10 years, there’s only one guy to pick, and that’s Eamonn. He was immense in the dressingroom, immense on the field. But he’s over 10 years at it, and it doesn’t get any easier.

“Willie has been a great guy since I’ve been involved. We’re blessed to have another leader like him, but the reality is that if you’re going to challenge Kilkenny and all the others you’re going to need more than one leader on the field.

“The captain plays an extra role, sure, but we need leaders in double figures on the pitch if we’re going to be competitive.”

For sure, though, they have one leader on the sideline.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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