‘He is as talented as there has been in the last 20 years in hurling’ – The reinvention of Bubbles O’Dwyer

A closer look at how Tipperary boss Liam Sheedy has gotten the best out of mercurial forward John O’Dwyer.

AFTER A HIT and miss league campaign, the Liam Sheedy effect has finally started to take hold in Tipperary.

Sunday’s seven-point victory over back-to-back Munster champions Cork lifted the lid on the work the Premier County have been doing over the last number of months.

Liam SheedyLiam Sheedy watches on during Tipperary’s opening round win over Cork last weekend.Source: James Crombie/INPHO

No longer are they considered outsiders for the Liam MacCarthy Cup – the weekend’s win moved Tipperary in second-favourites for the All-Ireland behind Limerick.

There’s a danger of reading too much into the first game of four in a round-robin, particularly considering club activity was pared back this April in comparison to 2018.

But it’s worth examining the factors that led to Tipperary’s best performance since at least the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final – when only a stoppage-time Joe Canning point denied them a place in the final.

A dominant half-back line of the Mahers – Brendan, Padraig and Ronan – provided the visitors with a platform to rain direct deliveries into the full-forward line.

All three got themselves on the scoresheet and dominated the proceedings, despite concerns before the game they would struggle to withstand the pace of Cork’s half-forwards.

In 2018, the Tipperary attack looked predictable and devoid of energy, but they rediscovered the spark in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Sheedy would have been particularly pleased with the work-rate of his forwards, who never gave the Cork defence a moment of peace when they came out with possession.

Mark Coleman dejectedMark Coleman festures towards the referee after winning a free.Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The quality of the front six was epitomised by the reinvention of John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer as a deep-lying centre-forward. He shot 0-7 from ten attempts and directly assisted 1-2, including a wonderfully precise pass for John McGrath’s green flag in the second-half.

“It’s something we’ve been working on a lot in training, our shooting and stuff,” O’Dwyer said after the game.

“We felt last year that our scoring efficiency wasn’t great. We have six forwards and two midfielders, and even our half-backs are good strikers of the ball and are always looking for scores. We’ve scorers all over the field and it’s just good that everyone chips in.”

Tipperary’s devastating attack hit 2-24 from open play, led by a leaner looking O’Dwyer and the return to form of McGrath and Seamus Callanan. O’Dwyer started in the full-forward line before Callanan was eventually posted on the edge of the square and the former was repositioned to 11, where he was stationed for the entire second period.

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He had 17 possessions in total, which is an impressive figure for a half-forward in hurling. It was notable how O’Dwyer rarely touched the ball in the middle channel.

He instead dragged his marker, centre-back Tim O’Mahony, from side to side which created oceans of space for Tipperary to attack down the middle.

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“If any team puts a player of his calibre out centre-forward and there’s plenty of space left and right of him he’s going to pop over a few points,” former Cork captain Pat Mulcahy, who managed O’Dwyer with CIT’s Fitzgibbon Cup team, tells The42.

“He’s not going to worry too much about the centre-back clearing ball because he knows he’s going to get the return in scoring form. He looked sharp, he looked fit.

“Bubbles is as talented as there has been in the last 20 years in hurling in terms of his touch, his skillset, his vision is phenomenal. But it’s his discipline on and off pitch to try and get that right and he seems to have got it right this year and he’s producing the goods.”

Rather than sitting deep to protect his full-back line against the barrage of route-one deliveries inside, O’Mahony was forced to track O’Dwyer given his accuracy from long-range.

“He ended up with seven points but again it goes back to the space which the midfielders (left behind them).

“This is why Bill Cooper was such a monumental loss for Cork,” explains Mulcahy.

“He will always step into the 6 position if the centre-back has to drop deep. You see him doing it time and again. He’s a physical presence there so he shuts down that space.

John O'DwyerJohn O’Dwyer scored seven points for the Premier on Sunday.Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Cork didn’t have that last Sunday and because of that it gave Bubbles the freedom of the park to go left and right and pick up ball off puck-outs and expose Tim O’Mahony a little bit in that regard.

“Which is a bit unfortunate from Tim’s perspective because he had a decision to make: do I sit back and protect my full-back line or do I step out and follow this guy across the width of the park?

“If you watched a few Bubbles scores, they were just off breaks. He’s very smart, very clever and he’s a good reader of the game. The second the ball landed at his feet it’s over the bar. His hands are probably as good as are in the game, they’re up there with (Patrick) Horgan’s.”

Since breaking onto the Tipperary team as a starter in 2014, O’Dwyer has largely featured in the corner. Moving him away from the confines of tight-marking corner-backs has its obvious benefits.

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He has the wrists to pick out dangerous passes into the inside forwards or pop over scores from distance.

On a number of occasions on Sunday, O’Dwyer found himself in a deep position, but once the ball was turned over he hared back up the field to join the attack.

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The move above came to nothing but it demonstrates O’Dwyer’s willingness to get himself into scoring positions.

“Sheedy kept his full-forward line very tight, very close to the six-yard box and they just broke left and right. He had huge space left and right and he dragged Cork’s half-back line across the field.

“Callanan didn’t stay at centre-forward from the first minute. Bubbles drifted out of there in the second-half. They were very clever and smart at creating space. It’s very easy to hit a ball into the corner when the space is there and you’ve a forward running after it.”

O’Dwyer’s predatory instincts have not been blunted either by the move outfield.

He ghosted in front of Anthony Nash’s posts and was left unmarked for what seemed like an eternity before O’Dwyer was eventually picked out by Noel McGrath. Within seconds the ball was transferred to John McGrath’s paw and nestled in Nash’s net.

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A brilliant Tipperary goal from John McGrath who was picked out by a terrific pass from John O’Dwyer.

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“His hands and his ability to spot space and pick out a pass is second to none,” says Mulcahy.

“That was seen with the pass for John McGrath. Most guys would have popped that over the bar in the space 30 yards out on the wing, but he’s got the courage to play that diagonal ball across the pitch and take a fella out.”

Noel McGrath’s positioning at midfield was another notable change brought about by Sheedy. Like Cathal Mannion in Galway, McGrath has benefited from the looser marking at centre-field and his work-rate plus intelligence makes him a good fit alongside Michael Breen in the engine room.

The link-up play between two of the best stickmen in the country for McGrath’s 63rd-minute point was a thing of beauty.

The midfielder played a sideline short to O’Dwyer, who flicked it back to McGrath along the ground. The latter scooped the ball up and played it to O’Dwyer, who feigned a shot on goal before disguising a hand-pass to the on-rushing McGrath for a delightful score.

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“That’s his strength and value when you bring him out the field, he can pick a pass and he can do damage. He’s certainly started the year very well but his challenge of course is to keep that going for the rest of the year.

“That’s the big thing for him, to be consistent now right throughout the championship because it’s a hard slog.”

Mulcahy believes Sheedy is the right man to press O’Dwyer’s buttons and keep him focused over an intense Munster campaign and beyond.

“We had Bubbles in CIT and his first year was probably his best year with us. He probably didn’t reach anything like he’s capable of after that but in his first year we stopped UCC going for three-in-a-row in the Fitzgibbon senior final and he was outstanding.

“He had the confidence to believe he was the absolute best and at the time he wasn’t playing with Tipp seniors. He was a panel member more than a regular. He had that confidence to believe he was the best.

“He’s fierce affable. He’s a hugely confident person and he likes to understand the game and discuss it. Very, very likeable, very chatty. He’s a guy whose company you’d enjoy a lot.

“To be honest with you he’s a fella that needs a strong hand and someone like Liam Sheedy is probably the perfect manager for him right now at this stage in his career because he does need some guidance from time to time.

“Once he’s facing the right direction, he’s a phenomenal talent.”

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