Delivered with a hint of a smile, Eamon O’Shea had a simple one-word answer when asked how he escapes from the pressures of inter-county management.
“Connemara!” said the Tipp senior hurling manager.
“It’s a great place to be when you lose a game!”
Known for being one of the game’s deep thinkers, O’Shea brought the press convoy on a mental journey when it came to talking about the All-Ireland final and Tipp’s preparations.
Faith and belief were key components of his speech, as was the way he downplayed the all-encompassing importance of the match itself.
“This is an All-Ireland final, but I can’t see it as being the biggest game of all,” said O’Shea, who is a professor of Economics at NUIG. “I’ve a big under-13 game in Galway that I’m missing to be here (at the media day) - it’s a pretty big game for me as well as those under-age players. As for the All-Ireland, you just keep on working away at it, trying to solve it.”
That remark opened up a new avenue, one which shed a little light on what makes the Tipp manager tick.
“A puzzle,” he said, when asked what he was trying to solve. “You’re trying to see if you can get a performance from the team; you’re not trying to see whether you win or not.”
The puzzle, as he put it, was something the Tipp players and management team had been teasing out over the year, but it has yielded some good results along the way.
“We’re more optimistic about where you’re at in terms of how we’ve shown improvement,” he said. “You’re hoping you can keep on doing that. It’s all about improving from the last day. We’re in the position now that we keep on improving; we want to see can we get there with the performance.
Kilkenny may have a better record when it comes to recent results between the counties, but O’Shea didn’t place too much importance in that. For him, the next performance was the focal point.
“It’s not an issue given the way I think about the game,” he said. “I know that if we perform we’ll be really competitive. The result may fall one way or the other but I’m not losing any sleep over it.”
Tipperary hurling has been on the up of late, but even when results weren’t going their way O’Shea continued to keep the faith, something which was tested following the loss to Limerick - his third straight defeat as Tipp boss.
“The results weren’t going the right way but I knew I really trying everything I could,” he said. “When you’re trying everything you can do, when you know the players, by and large, are 100% behind you trying to do what they can it’s a good place to be.
“It could have been the end against Galway, I realise that, but it’s not bad being in a place where you know you’re working really hard and everyone is trying to achieve the same goal even though things aren’t going with you.”
O’Shea showed a healthy attitude towards pressure, something he has passed on to the players.
“You just keep cool first of all, try to keep calm and put things in perspective,” he said. “You try to get a performance and to keep working away. Work is a great antidote to almost everything. When you’re working and trying hard to work, when you have that belief; we still try to do our hurling as we like to do hurling here in Tipperary.
“There was a great belief that we could do something,” he added. “You try to talk to the players, give them a bit of confidence. We were never in a position where it might have appeared from the outside; it was a lot calmer within.”
The players have responded to O’Shea’s teachings. Proof, if it was needed, came in their revival against Galway in the qualifiers. Trailing by six points (4-12 to 1-15) with 20 minutes to play, Tipp outscored their rivals by 2-10 to 0-1 to roar on.
“There’s been a really strong commitment to training, to trying to get better,” he said. “What you saw against Galway in the qualifier, those last 20 minutes came from the squad having a baseline belief that they could do something.
“I think a lot of that is down to the players themselves. I have a strong belief in our hurling and I was delighted for them that it came together in that 20-minute spell - I wish we’d see a bit more of it! That’s the aim for the next day - can we get to that level.”
The finale to the Galway game was a welcome antidote to the scrutiny the team had been under in the build-up to the game. While O’Shea understood the frustrations fans may have felt before that game, his answer highlighted how Tipp may have flourished by circling the wagons.
“I know that if I was looking from the outside in I would get frustrated,” he said, almost hinting at a closed camp environment. “When you follow any team and they’re not winning you do get frustrated. It’s different when you’re involved. As a manager you can’t get frustrated because you’re trying to make things better.
“That’s really the challenge; that to me is always going back to the puzzle,” he added. “To me that’s ‘how can you improve’, ‘how can we get something from a player or the players’. It’s no more or less than that. The winning in the games are… (he paused) interesting...”
Performances, more than victories, seem to motivate O’Shea. A selector under Liam Sheedy a few years ago, he could even appreciate games Tipp had lost.
“To me, the 2009 All-Ireland final was a tremendous game,” he said. “It remained a tremendous game, whether we won or lost. Even five years later we know it was some game to be involved in.
“Equally, last year’s qualifier in Kilkenny was outstanding in terms of being an experience,” he added. “To be in Nowlan Park and to see the passion and everything around it, even though we lost that game, there was a sense afterwards that we had participated in something special.
“While it was a shortened year for us, you did look at it and say ‘yeah, we were alive’,” O’Shea continued. “There’s nothing like being in a big event for that period. Sometimes, even when you lose, you’re aware that you’re part of something special and playing against a special team in a special place is special for hurling. There’s something amazing about that, even though of course you’d like to win!”
To experience that winning feeling this weekend, Tipp will have to overcome a Kilkenny side O’Shea reckons have great depths of desire.
“The last 10 minutes of the semi-final against Limerick showed the desire that Kilkenny had to get to the All-Ireland final,” he said. “All successful teams have that great desire to keep going and that’s what you saw; it’s formidable. When you ally that to their natural abilities and natural strengths you get a really good team.
“It’s easy to say this as the opposing manager and all sorts of people might question your motives when you say this but they are the benchmark team,” he added.
“If you look at Irish sport over the past 10 years, across a wide range of sport, they are the team that you have to have the absolute respect for.
“It’s a tribute to them the way they have managed to sustain the culture of excellence.”