Sheedy and Tipp adjusting to the vision that is Championship 2020
By Shane Brophy
The last time Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy was met by a group of journalists was March 8th last in a chilly Pearse Stadium, following the defeat to Galway in the National Hurling League.
Last Thursday night for his pre-championship press conference, it was from the comfort of his own home in Portroe, through modern technology. It is just one of the many things that has changed utterly since Tipperary won the All Ireland title almost fifteen months ago and who finally begin their quest to retain it this Sunday against Limerick.
That the championship is finally underway has come a long way since May when it looked as if we might not have a championship in 2020 as the country was in the grips of a Covid-19 pandemic that appeared never-ending.
From Spain to a new Ireland
The Tipperary hurlers more than most were at the forefront of the initial lockdown in March as they were in the middle of a pre-championship training camp in Spain when then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made the announcement from Washington D.C. that restrictions would be imposed in the country to deal with rising cases of coronavirus.
“It was a strange situation,” Liam revealed.
“On the Wednesday things were moving okay but it changed dramatically on the Friday morning and that is when we were quite concerned to ensure everyone got back safe.
“In fairness, we were well drilled, we had our masks on, we were cocooning on our own. There was no-one else in the location we were in Spain. We were with ourselves and no-one else was present. It was a safe environment in that scenario but that is hard to explain to people but we had to transfer ourselves back through the airports so we wore the masks on the flight back and used the hand sanitizer.
“I spoke to the public health people on arrival and we all had to restrict our movement for the period after coming back.
“Some of the guys had to move into lodges as they had older family members who they didn’t want to put at any risk. We played it very safe to ensure everything was okay and thankfully we didn’t have any cases on the back of it but it did heighten all our awareness of how we needed to behave as a panel and a backroom team around Covid.”
Since returning to group training on September 14th last, doing things in the correct manner is paramount for Liam Sheedy, not just for himself and the players, but also for family members at home to ensure if there is a Covid case, it won’t be traced back from being transmitted within the group.
"We have very strict protocols,” Sheedy added.
“There have been nights when three or four guys didn't come to training because they might have had a sore throat or a runny nose. It's just zero tolerance around that stuff. We don't take any risks. We've had to have various players tested from time to time to ensure that everything's okay.
“At any stage you could become a close contact or a positive case and if you're a close contact now you miss the match against our semi-final opponents and that's how tight this thing is.
“I would really hope the general public would be accepting of that. These players are trying to do everything they can but ultimately, they're teachers, workers... they do have to operate their lives outside of hurling.
“It isn't life or death; it isn't what puts food on the table. That piece of it is trying to see with all the distractions going on to allow them to come in and enjoy their time training. It's what we really focused on and it's my responsibility to ensure that the environment I set up in there is a really safe environment where they don't feel at risk when they come in. We're very strong on the protocols and trying to keep a safety-first approach that allows them to know that 'I'm in now and I'm safe'.
As well as having to deal with new Covid related guidelines, Liam Sheedy and his selectors had to deal with a new training schedule where they were only allowed to return to collective training six weeks ago as the club championships wrapped up which provided an extra layer of ensuring the players are as prepared as possible for inter-county championship hurling.
“We are trying to manage the load since we got them back in,” he said.
“Some of them had varying levels of club activity. 15 would have exited after the three (group) rounds then there were stages of quarter finals, semi-finals and finals, and obviously we had the Loughmore boys that had to contest two county finals.
"I really enjoyed the club championship. From the outset, I was really strong when I met with John Devane (county chairman), Joe (Kennedy) and the lads (executive) about a three-round championship when there was talk of knockout. Everybody got three matches and some people unfortunately ended up in the relegation side of the draw. Another eight got to quarter-finals so I think the club action was hugely enjoyable and certainly a good steppingstone for us to see all the lads, their form and understand how they were playing.
“They came into us having got loads of matches before them. One of the frustrations for an inter-county player who isn't in the first 15 is he gives the whole summer to the inter-county but doesn't see a lot of pitch action. The club first gave them a chance to be active in their own clubs and I must say I was really happy with how the lads carried themselves with their clubs throughout the club championship.”
The quality of the club championship led to call ups for Kiladangan duo James Quigley and Paul Flynn, and most notably John Meagher who made the switch from the senior football panel, returning to the hurling set-up for the first time since 2016 with Sheedy revealing how he managed to get his man.
He said: “I had a conversation with John and in fairness to him he is an outstanding footballer as well as a hurler. When you have a guy like that the decision-making moves over to him.
“I had a chat with John last year, he said he was anxious to give the football another year so that was where that conversation finished. Obviously, at the back end of the club championship I just rang him, and asked John had anything changed.
“I spoke to David Power as well. Myself and David Power have an excellent relationship. He's a top-class guy trying to do his thing with the footballers in the county. But ultimately John made the decision and in fairness to David he was very supportive of what John wanted to do and I was the same.
“I said to John, 'Look, if you want to have a cut off the inter-county hurling we would be happy to grant you that chance and if you are happy with the footballers that's absolutely fine'.
“As a result, he has joined the panel and is doing really well. He is a great guy, really applying himself very well and has slotted in very well with the whole group, which is great to see.”
A Winter Championship
One of the phrases usually associated with the looming championship is the longer evenings and the freshly cut grass with the ball hopping off the hardening ground. This year it is the exact opposite, but Liam Sheedy doesn’t feel it will impact the nature of the championship one bit.
“The bottom line is that ball can travel long distances, whether there is rain in the sky or sun,” he said.
“I was a bit worried as the last few weeks had been really fine weather and I knew we’d get rain shortly to road test ourselves, but we got our wish last week.”
He added: “It still holds through the importance of winning your own ball and transferring that ball really efficiently to the right parts of the pitch so you can dismantle the opposition will still hold through.
“We still have a good quality of striker in our team, both in terms of the tried and trusted guys, and the younger guys that are coming through. There should be an adaptability to any particular day or conditions that is going to be really important. We have that within the squad. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the way the lads have gone about their business over the last few weeks. There is a lot of risks and threats, stuff going on outside your performance bubble so I would be hugely complimentary of the way the lads have gone about their business and it’s all with the view of us being in peak performance mode come Sunday because we know if we are not we won’t have any chance of making it to a Munster Final.”
It has been suggested in some circles that reverting to the shorter knockout/qualifier section will suit this Tipperary team, particularly those players over the age of thirty that still play such key roles. However, Liam Sheedy feels that Limerick will have a distinct advantage going into Sunday’s semi-final having a game under their belt.
“We all know matches are worth three or four weeks training so Limerick will have the advantage of a game under their belt which is a big plus,” he said.
“Whether is it the old format or the new format, whoever comes out on top in the end of the 2020 championship will have been the best team as you still have got to take down a number of teams throughout the championship. There are some serious teams and the hurling championship and the competition within both provinces has been as high as it has ever been so there is no shortage of challengers.
“Everyone will see this window as giving all of them a real chance. It’s a really focused period where you have got to peak and continuously peak week in week out and that does bring its challenges but please God we get to run the format in the form it can run through.”