Tipp’s inspirational
 professor of economics
 finally arriving 
at perfect 
formula for productivity
Eamon O’Shea

Published 15/08/2014 | 00:00

Eamon O’Shea
There were two minutes left in the 2010 Tipperary-Galway All-Ireland quarter-final when Eamon O’Shea walked behind the Tipp goal. His arms were folded. His demeanour was relaxed. Tipp were two points down but O’Shea had the appearance of someone out on a casual afternoon stroll.

O’Shea looked at Brendan Cummins, nodded his head and kept walking.

“At that point, I knew we weren’t going to lose the game,” says Cummins. “Eamon had so much confidence oozing out of him. The next puck-out I got, I picked out John O’Brien, who drove it over the bar. It was almost as if Eamon’s confidence directly transferred over to me. That is the type of influence he has on people.”

Confidence and influence could just as easily translate into trust because that word forms one of the key cornerstones of O’Shea’s management and coaching philosophy. When O’Shea coached Tipp between 2008-10, their superb forward play and how they interacted with each other was the outcome of his brilliant vision.

It was about interchanging positions and the exploitation of space. Top coaches have often contacted O’Shea about drills for manufacturing space. He always tells them he doesn’t have any. “The first thing about space,” he once said, “is that you trust each other.”

Trust enables players to develop the concept of looking at the pitch differently. And then O’Shea lets the players work it out themselves.

“What I took most from Eamon was the trust he had in me,” says Cummins. “He is very good at getting players to understand what he wants. You become a better player by just talking to him, never mind training under him. You knew if you did your job right, if you positioned the ball ten yards shorter rather than where you wanted to put it, other players played better too.”

A huge admirer of Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt, O’Shea has always been intrigued by the teachings of Michel Bruyninckx, the Standard Liège academy director, who is arguably the first football coach to develop a training method specifically to target improvement in the brain’s performance.

That is O’Shea’s central goal – to create thinking players. He gives his players total freedom to express themselves. And they have a genuine love for him.

“You never want to let Eamon down,” says Cummins. “What he is telling you is for your own good. If you don’t do it, you’re letting yourself down. He makes you look in on yourself that way.”

The players play for O’Shea because he has always had that innate ability to connect with them. “He lifts you with every sentence,” wrote Lar Corbett in his book. “My mind was blown every time I spoke with him. I used to go away from meetings or training sessions and spend hours thinking about stuff he had said or done.”

His magnetic presence is all-encompassing. There is always a spring in his step. O’Shea oozes energy. He will often gather the players around him, then sprint with them to another corner of the field to explain some detail of what he wants. When he speaks to them at half-time, he bends down to engage with them at eye-level.

O’Shea is a quirky character, with a real eccentric streak. “As they say, they don’t post All-Ireland medals,” says Cummins. “Well they don’t post the qualifications he has either. He has got that professor way about him. That’s what makes him unique too, but if you look into his eyes, you can see his steely determination.”

Panacea

The players desperately wanted O’Shea back in 2013 but the risk with such expectation was that they would see him as a panacea to all Tipp’s ills.

O’Shea is an extremely humble person but he may have thought his second coming would be enough to return the players to their old panache. In 2013, Tipp looked like a team obsessed with recreating 2010 and it didn’t work. For most of the early part of 2014, Tipp looked like a team who had lost their identity.

O’Shea has had his critics over the last 18 months. He lost his first three championship games. He has been accused of being too loyal to some players and not hard enough on others. Yet he is gradually getting there.

“Last year, I saw a man trying to adapt to the new environment,” says Cummins. “He is very process-driven and he was trying to work out what the process is to get the result.

“Sometimes you go up dark alleys and he was often like a mouse in a maze trying to get out. Eventually you will find the way out, and watching him trying to solve the puzzle is intriguing. It is very hard to come back the second time around but he has adjusted well to management.”

O’Shea is certainly not a typical hurling manager. A professor of economics in NUIG, he has written a multitude of books and theses. He is a coach by heart but he has also huge experience in managing people. An epidemiologist who specialises in ageing, O’Shea was instrumental in establishing the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG) in 2006 as a multidisciplinary research centre in Ireland and internationally. O’Shea was ICSG Director for four years.

“The skills Eamon preaches as a manager and coach are also life skills,” said Michael Ryan, Tipp selector. “He is an academic but he has an aura and he sees the humour in everyone. He’s always emphasising that we have to enjoy ourselves. He would have a different perspective on life than most people. He always speaks about the importance of being in the now.”

O’Shea played for Tipperary between 1979 and 1986, winning a league title in 1979. He also spent two years playing with Dublin in 1984 and 1985, returning to Tipp after he won an All-Ireland club medal with Kilruane McDonaghs in 1986.

One of his first coaching roles was with NUIG in 1992-93. At the time, Clare’s Jamesie O’Connor was club hurling captain. Eoin Garvey, former Carlow manager, was club secretary. O’Shea lectured them both in economics and they approached O’Shea after a lecture one day and asked him to coach the Fitzgibbon team.

O’Connor and O’Shea built up an instant friendship. Before the 1993 Munster final, O’Connor sat down with O’Shea. He scored 0-4 on the day against Tipp. “Eamon said to me, ‘Take a chance on the first Clare puck-out’,” says O’Connor now. “On the first puck-out, I took off, the ball broke straight into my hand and I put it over. I remember saying to myself, ‘Why hadn’t I ever thought of that before?’

“He was a real thinker but Eamon was the first person who had ever spoken to me as a forward. He talked about movement and not hurling a defender in a particular space.

“It was more his empathy than anything else. He was a guy who listened. Along with (Ger) Loughnane, Eamon was the biggest influence on my career.”

O’Connor and O’Shea remain good friends and are still in regular contact. “He is just an inherently decent and genuine person,” says O’Connor. “A man of integrity. He lives in Galway and has huge responsibility with his job and I think he took on the Tipp job almost out of a sense of duty.

“Put it like this, he didn’t need the headaches that it has brought. He has taken a fair few knocks over the last 18 months but he has continued to work hard and that is the nature of the man. There is probably a level of unity in the camp now because of what they have had to overcome this year.”

O’Shea’s work, studies and research have taken him all around the world but his primary passion has always been Tipp hurling. He always speaks to the Tipp players about being “men of honour”. His philosophy is based on honour, respect and dignity, all of which are characteristics of his own.

“He understands the values the Tipperary jersey holds,” says Cummins.

“When people watch Tipp play, they expect a certain style and a certain type of animal wearing the jersey. Eamon knows that for the team to win, they have to connect with that history and let it flow through them.

“Winning defines everything but that is what he is searching for. Sunday’s game is massively important for Tipperary and for everything Eamon O’Shea is trying to build.”

Still building. Still searching. Always searching. Always thinking.

Irish Independent

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