For the past month or so, we have become fixated on who will succeed Liam Sheedy as the manager of the Tipperary Senior Hurling Team. It is a question I am asked daily and it is probable that all will have been
revealed by the time you are reading this column. But, at the time of writing this article, we have no idea. But boy, do we like to speculate? And we spend as much time on who it won’t be as to who it will be.
And it all points to a modern trend of creating a cult around the manager of any sporting team. In 2010, Eoin Kelly’s acceptance speech, as he picked up the Liam McCarthy, referenced Liam Sheedy as ‘rescuing a sinking ship’. Messiah status secured. Liam returns in 2019, wins a second All Ireland, deification secured. So when Liam announces his decision not to seek a further term, we immediately default to crisis mode. Terms like ‘crossroads’ and ‘critical juncture’ are trotted out.
Hurling analysts infer that our next senior hurling manager will be one of the most important appointments in the recent past. With such hype and conjecture surrounding the appointment you would have to wonder why anyone would want it in the first place.
Succeeding a very successful manager in any sporting context is never easy, especially when the outgoing manager was so universally liked, nay, loved. Alex Ferguson recommended his successor to the board of Manchester United. Banners were unfurled by supporters declaring his successor as ‘the chosen one’. Talk about setting someone up to fail? What was largely overlooked at that time was the nature of the squad that David Moyes was inheriting. Ferguson had overachieved with a team past its best. He was departing the stage and probably knew that a significant rebuild was required. But, by anointing his successor in such a fashion, he gave false hope to those who expected the good times to keep rolling. Manchester United have not won the title in 8 seasons now and are on their third or fourth rebuild.
There are probably five big managerial jobs in the GAA, the big two in football, Kerry and Dublin, and the big three in hurling, ourselves, Cork and Kilkenny. Those five managers are household names. They shoulder expectation like none of their fellow managers. Their supporters expect to win a title, if not every year, then most years. In the main, those five teams appoint managers from within.
Tommy Lyons from Mayo managed the Dublin football team at the turn of the century but that I think is the only aberration in the modern game. So we are fishing in a small pool. If we decide that only a Tipperary man can manage the Tipperary senior hurlers then we are narrowing our choices.
After a recent discussion on this subject on Extra Time, an angry listener in North Tipperary messaged the program thus ‘imagine someone from outside, coming in to teach us how to hurl, we’d be a laughing stock’. I fully believe Tipperary to be the Home of Hurling but it is also home to some narrow mindedness too when it comes to hurling. So, it is perfectly all right for a non-Tipperary person to manage our senior footballers, but our hurlers? Perish the thought.
Two fine Tipperary men were in the running for the top job. Liam Cahill sat down with the county board and they had a chat. He decided to stay where he was in Waterford, at least for now. Darragh Egan was part of the outgoing backroom team but he has pitched up his tent in Wexford for the foreseeable. Both moves were not foreseen by many and led to a creeping anxiety amongst supporters. Maybe those two men looked under the bonnet of Tipperary hurling and had not liked what they saw. Maybe they told the County Board to get the machine running a little smoother and come back to them? Much has been made in recent times about underage structures and rightly so.
Cork have enjoyed much underage success in recent months and their hurlers look advanced for their age, physically stronger than anyone else and, dare I say it, on the cusp of a major breakthrough. They last won Liam McCarthy in 2005. Limerick’s recent success has been as a result of underage development that saw players develop through minor and under 21 success and now they are the Princes of the hurling world. And if we are not at that level in terms of underage player development then we might have to recalibrate our expectations in the coming years. If Cork and Limerick have raised the bar in terms of underage development then why have we not matched them? Have they greater resources than ours? Are they thinking differently to us? Or maybe we aren’t really that far behind in terms of development as some would suggest.
Underage success is no guarantor of senior titles. Limerick won three under 21 hurling titles in a row twenty years ago. A total of 39 players made up those All Ireland winning teams. All but 10 of them went on to hurl senior for Limerick. And none of them won any further silverware. Kerry won five minor football titles in a row from 2014 to 2018 and some of those teams produced some exquisite football. But none of those players have won silverware since, no under 20 title and no senior title. But those underage success stories fuel supporter expectation. In Tipperary, we look at our back to back under-21 and under 20 All Ireland successes in 2018 and 2019 and there is no doubt that both those teams contained some fine hurlers. But to assume that those successes will translate into Liam McCarthy dominance is folly. The next Tipperary manager will be charged with developing those players to be competitive at senior level to compete with Limerick, Cork and Waterford. Liam Sheedy was criticised for not giving those players more game time in the last two years. In mitigation for this, Liam could point to Covid and the truncated nature of league and championship which robbed him of the luxury of experimentation. And Liam saw more of them than we did and he probably concluded that they just weren’t ready yet.
Our next manager will have no choice but to find replacements for men like Brendan Maher, not an easy task. He will have a role in their further development as senior inter county hurlers and knitting them into a team of established players won’t be simple, we wish him well.
One manager who stepped aside this week was Declan Carr, after only one year with our ladies’ football team. It is hard not to contrast the rise of the Meath ladies, recently crowned All Ireland Champions, with our descent. Tipp ladies beat Meath comfortably in the Intermediate Final in 2019. A year later Meath were promoted to the senior ranks, A year after that Meath dethrone a five in a row seeking Dublin team. Whilst Tipp battled relegation. But what struck me most about Declan’s announcement was the following sentence in his statement. “I met with the county board today and following our discussions it became apparent that the standards I was working towards, and the ambition I had for the team, was not the same as some of the players.” One has to wonder about the necessity of that sentence. Did it improve the statement, provide any clarity? And if not, perhaps it was best to leave it out.
I started by mentioning the creation of a cult around the manager of a sporting team.
This is evidenced in hurling by the brouhaha that seems to follow Davy Fitzgerald around. His tenure in Wexford had some successes for sure, he won a first Leinster title in 15 years in 2019. But his time there will be remembered by some for Wexford’s failure to get over the line against Tipp in that pulsating All Ireland semi final in 2019. And now, when a managerial position becomes vacant, Davy Fitz’s name is inevitably linked to it. Journalists are quickly onto Google maps to see how far it is from Davy’s home in Sixmilebridge to Athenry, for example. His persona makes headlines, gives a county and a team a lift and in short he is good for the game. Brian Cody is an altogether different character. He has been at the helm in Kilkenny since 1998 and his appetite for the game remains unsated, will it ever be? I hope not because we will miss him if and when he goes, again he is good for the game. John Kiely and Paul Kinnerk, Liam Cahill and Michael Bevans, hurling double acts. A bit like Clough and Taylor, or Shankly and Paisley. Whoever gets the top job in Tipperary this weekend will be handed the keys of the Kingdom. Who he chooses as part of his backroom team should be as eagerly observed as the appointment itself.
What would Paddy Leahy make of it all?
Join Ronan Quirke each and every Monday night at 7pm for Extra Time on TippFM