Interview with Eamonn O’Shea from Irish Examiner

O’Shea: emulating Tipp has you behind already

By Michael Moynihan

Friday, December 24, 2010
LAUDED by Tipperary’s All-Ireland-winning hurlers, Eamonn O’Shea is regarded as one of the top coaches in the game. He spoke to Michael Moynihan about the state of hurling.
EAMONN O’SHEA collects the first question like a centre-back operating in plenty of space: a quick look up and then an elegant delivery. Your opener is about the state of hurling at present and the former Tipp selector is brisk.

“It’s a bit narrow in terms of quality, but it’s been narrow before. What happened in the nineties, when Clare broke through, and Offaly and Wexford, that whetted the appetite for a more competitive championship, but in the last few years Cork won a couple, Kilkenny won four, and Tipp came back to win one.

“So people say, where’s the width? To an extent the fact that the last two All-Irelands were good matches hide the lack of width and the fact that there isn’t the depth of quality players around to give the game that competitiveness – particularly in the forwards.

“Maybe we’re not making enough of the competitions we have in having big matches at the right times of the year. I was disappointed in the league this year, for instance. Not the fact that we didn’t win it, which was neither here nor there, but I didn’t think the matches were at a standard I’d be happy with.”

You couldn’t say that about the last two All-Ireland finals. Tipperary’s flying attack threw Kilkenny down in September, making nonsense of suggestions we might be entering an era of defensive tactics.

“The difficulty is not that teams adopt particular tactics,” says O’Shea, “The difficulty is in finding coaches and managers who will innovate, whether that’s Offaly’s ground hurling, or Cork’s short game. One reason I got involved was to see if we could come up with something to challenge the opposition in terms of movement and so on. So it’s not a case of the game going negative, more a case of how you respond to that.

“A difficulty in every sport is trying to emulate those who are successful, but if you’re trying to emulate you’re behind. If you try to do the same thing as winners you’ll probably end up second all the time.”

The challenge to innovate is a stiff one, though O’Shea says that hurling-specific drills are a help.

“The benefit of professional sport is that it’s the workplace – you have them all the time, they’re able to rest and so on. Our lads were coming from work, under pressure, they’re arriving early to get hydrated and to relax before they train, and inevitably, if you don’t make it interesting and create a happy environment then it’ll be very difficult.

“They lead busy lives and the expectations of top players are super-high as well. Everything has to be right. But the irony is that they love the game while paradoxically, we’ve tried to use derivative drills from football which are meaningless (in hurling).

“I could probably tell you the amount of times I did a drill – I had only a couple of variations which I used once every couple of months. We tried to do the work with conditioned games, confined spaces and so on – which other teams do as well.”

The vogue for stats is growing among many teams. As head of NUIG’s economics department O’Shea handles analyses for a living, so it’s interesting to hear his take on the invasion of numbers.

“Stats tell you something but I think there’s a need to marry the intuition of management with the data, because if you rely on the data all the time you’ll miss something.

“There are key plays in the game, usually two or three key moments. My basic rule of thumb with hurling is to put your key players in the positions where they can make a difference; put creative players where they can be creative and if you’re a back man, get the ball to a player who can score. It’s not rocket science.

“I’d look at stats in the longer term and rely on intuition to a large degree, and we did so as a management team. If you asked me for a run-down on the stats I couldn’t do so but I’d know at half-time if we were in trouble in a certain place in a game.

“Different managers work differently. We wouldn’t have taken a lot of stats on board but the best thing for me was to communicate with the ‘keeper that we were losing ball in a certain area. When all’s said and done players have to be self-directed on the field when the game starts rather than be dictated to by the management team.”

With New England Sports Ventures taking over Liverpool FC, fresh from stats-aided success with the Boston Red Sox, can we expect more statistics being used in hurling? “I think you could manage it in rugby, maybe, where there are more set-pieces, but it’d be tricky enough in hurling. Maybe you could do it as a long-term thing, that if you’re consistently losing ball in a particular term in a particular position, but hurling is a very random game. It’s not like with like.”

O’Shea’s reference to goalkeepers illustrates their increasing importance in hurling nowadays.

“We’d have worked a fair bit on the puck-out, and Brendan (Cummins) is easy to work with. I’d have probably spent a half-hour with the keepers – not every week, but every second week, say – primarily giving them the confidence to strike.

“But then it was up to them. I had no walkie-talking with Brendan, telling him where to hit it, but if he’s not doing the right thing that’s my fault, not his.”

One surprise for O’Shea was the sheer youth of his charges, though that can be a double-edged sword.

“It’s gotten much younger. When I went back with Tipp and saw how young these players were . . . I’m used to teaching and there was no difference between the students I teach and these youngsters.

“But there’s a need for teams to make sure their age structure is right, and that’s something to keep an eye on. I think it’s better for a county to watch cohorts coming through and leaving, because you don’t want to front-load a team so much that there are eight or nine U21s on a team.

“Now, we had five U21s on our team, but they were exceptional. I value the older player – as role model, for experience and guidance – and our older players were immense.”

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Friday, December 24, 2010

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