‘A bit of randomness’ may help Tipp turn the Treaty tide in Munster's clash of coaching styles

The unorthodox training methods of ‘genius’ O’Shea come up against the detail-driven Kinnerk in Munster SHC decider
Tipperary coach Eamon O’Shea’s loose methods of coaching contrast greatly to the perfectionist Paul Kinnerk. Credit: Sportsfile

Tipperary coach Eamon O’Shea’s loose methods of coaching contrast greatly to the perfectionist Paul Kinnerk. Credit: Sportsfile

Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk lifts Liam MacCarthy. Credit: Sportsfile

Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk lifts Liam MacCarthy. Credit: Sportsfile

Vincent Hogan

So what must Tipperary do, send the old warriors out like lions and hope for an elemental shift in the plates?

Is it really feasible that they can reclaim the kind of leverage lost in those 2019 and 2020 whippings to Limerick? Surely the detail of those days stocks only madness for Tipp. Just too many physical mismatches, too many lungs ablaze and wrists asleep.

The margins were 12 points and nine, but both felt more profound than anything a book-keeper might convey.

Coached to suffocate, Limerick just did their boa constrictor thing on Tipp, plundering puck-outs, breaking lines, moving on.

Even in the tempest of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last November, the grammar of their play was ruthlessly precise and controlling.

And that’s what we now recognise as the Paul Kinnerk way, everything parsed, rationalised and unyielding, a repudiation of those old desperado days when Limerick’s best hurling had to be rooted in anger. John Kiely knew what he was chasing in the winter of 2016 when he dialled Kinnerk’s number.

The same thing Davy Fitzgerald recognised four years earlier when they met in Limerick’s Radisson Hotel, the Sixmilebridgeman looking for Kinnerk to be a part of Clare’s senior management in harmony with his existing role alongside Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor over the under-21s.

That under-21 group would necklace three All-Ireland titles between 2012 and ’14, but it was something Kinnerk said to Fitzgerald during their meeting that gave a taste of the certainty he espoused.

“I know you’re good at training teams,” he told Davy Fitz, “but you’re about to find out that I’m even better!”

Their union duly brought the Liam MacCarthy to Clare for only the fourth time in history and, tomorrow in Cork, Limerick continue their push for a third senior crown in four seasons. Kinnerk, the football man, has become a hurling icon.

Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk lifts Liam MacCarthy. Credit: Sportsfile

Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk lifts Liam MacCarthy. Credit: Sportsfile

Kinnerk’s fastidious, detail-driven style is, in some respects, the very antithesis of how Eamon O’Shea works a Tipp training session for Liam Sheedy.

O’Shea’s strength is the alchemy of his words and an indifference to old-school sniggers. In hurling, maybe above any game, innovation can be traduced by conservatism and self-consciousness. Routinely, cliché leads coaches by the hand.

And so, irrespective of stage or circumstance, the same lines tend to get recited as if cut from ancient tablets.

It takes courage to step outside that, knowing the game’s historical insularity, because there are plenty of hurling people who consider O’Shea’s difference “a bit out there” – as one put it to this writer, a gospel lacking in structure and detail and, accordingly, any real identifiable blueprint.

They roll their eyes at the kind of anecdote Lar Corbett recycled in his autobiography All In My Head in which he finds O’Shea standing next to him and just staring silently for close to ten seconds at training one night in Semple Stadium.

“What’s up?” Corbett eventually asks.

“Nothing!” replies O’Shea. “I just wanted to see if you were right!”

But Corbett’s story with Tipp followed an unconventional arc. He had no under-age inter-county experience when Nicky English drafted him into Tipp’s senior panel for the 2001 season which, of course, culminated with the Thurles Sarsfields man being part of an All-Ireland winning team.

The early stretch of Corbett’s career with Tipp became blighted by hamstring troubles though and the attendant grumbles of supporter intolerance. In the GAA, players can all too easily become commodified by their failures, branded by them, cursed.

But O’Shea’s unorthodoxy freed something in Corbett. In time, the Thurles man says his “mind was blown” every time they spoke.

Up to the 2006 Munster final, Corbett had started just five of Tipp’s previous 35 league and championship games. But O’Shea’s arrival as part of Sheedy’s backroom in ’08 suddenly transformed him into a rapacious goal-machine. Much the same could be said of Séamus Callanan, a player whipped off at half-time in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny and un-used when the counties collided again one year later.

The current Tipp captain is his county’s record championship goal-scorer (36) having stretched clear of Corbett’s tally (29) during that extraordinary All-Ireland winning run of 2019 in which he goaled in all eight games.

He, too, cites O’Shea as an intrinsic influence on those figures.

“I wouldn’t have half the career I’ve had only for Eamon,” Callanan reflected recently. “Such a genius for the game. If you spent 20 minutes in his company, it would be 20 minutes well spent: hurling, life, anything at all, an incredible man.”

There is an easily accessible video of O’Shea in action from five years ago, addressing a group of coaches as part of the Déise Óg South East Coaching Workshop. Mostly, he focuses on making a session logical, productive, enjoyable. There are, conspicuously, no cones on the field.

But it’s towards the end that you get a sense of the quintessential O’Shea message. The idealism if you like.

His best work has always been in directing forwards towards space and opportunity, in developing intuition.

“Don’t underestimate the imperceptible sound of a net shaking,” he tells his audience. “It’s what forwards carry with them. Backs can’t hear it.

“Work on the sound as part of visualisation. I’m telling you, it works. You don’t need a psychologist. Get them into that feeling of wanting to score. That feeling, that sound, those senses.

“It’s the senses dictate how they’ll play and how enjoyable they find it.”

The basic fundamentalism of a hurling dressing-room tends to seek out plainer messages, targets that are measurable as distinct from notional. But those who have worked with O’Shea swear by his insight, his gift for – as Brendan Cummins puts it in his autobiography Standing My Ground – “sprinkling magic dust over us”.

Seen at its best (perhaps in the drawn 2014 All-Ireland final at a time he was Tipp manager), O’Shea’s coaching has a freestyle air to it. The element of structure involved is light-touch, opaque almost.

That day Tipp’s forward movement threatened to obliterate Kilkenny, but Callanan had two penalties saved, Corbett had a shot snap back from the angle of post and crossbar and, of course, Hawk-Eye then ruled ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s late free wide by the breadth of a cigarette paper.

And when Kilkenny re-programmed the conditions of engagement three weeks later, Tipp’s beauty disappeared.

Under Kinnerk, Limerick’s metabolism into a killing machine has been more an exercise in the compression of space than any run with the bulls. With his football background, possession is king to Kinnerk.

He was a member of Maurice Horan’s Limerick squad around the time of those under-age successes in Clare and won a couple of county titles with his club, Monaleen.

In an interview on these pages earlier this year, Kinnerk did not rule out fleshing out his CV some future day by coaching in other sports. “At the moment, hurling is what I’m really enjoying,” he told Michael Verney. “But who knows in time what might happen?”

A secondary school teacher by profession, his training innovations have been lauded as “phenomenal” by retired 2018 All-Ireland winner, Shane Dowling.

Under his baton, Limerick carry a relentlessness, an air of certainty to what they do. Too big to be pushed around, too detailed to be second-guessed, they hurl with efficient fury, but seldom a wild edge.

And that’s the challenge facing Tipp now. How to break this Munster final open.

As a player (he hurled with Tipp through the ‘famine years’ of the early 1980s), O’Shea once described what he brought to a team as “a little bit of unstructuredness, a bit of randomness”. Those qualities carry into his coaching.

The licence given to a man like Callanan and Corbett before him is rooted in a philosophy of empowering attacking players, essentially, to follow their noses. Not to be roped down by the number on their jersey. When it works, it can be beautiful. A flaring opera.

But that licence is seldom granted by this Limerick team and, accordingly, the struggle is to find a legal way to stop them now. Tomorrow in Cork, Tipp must do something different, find something different before the sun bows down on some of their greatest warriors.

Is it in them?

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