Mark Sheahan, Nenagh Éire Óg, reflects on his club and inter-county career06 Sep 2017
In October 2013, Mark Sheahan sat down and did an interview for the upcoming third volume of the Nenagh Éire Óg history book, ‘A Central Culture – Gaelic Sport in Nenagh‘. In it he recounted his club and inter-county career and reflected on the highs and lows. Mark is without doubt the greatest footballer Nenagh Éire Óg has ever produced and in 1993 he became the first Nenagh produced footballer to play in a Munster senior football final. Robert McGann had won a Munster senior medal in 1935 but wasn’t originally from the town. Here is Mark’s story.
- What are your earliest memories of Gaelic Games?
My earliest memories of playing GAA are of the hurling street leagues that were organised by the club. I think they were under-10 but they were very well organised and our team won.
- Who first introduced you to Gaelic games?
My first introduction was in school during P.E. In the early primary school days I didn’t have the greatest interest in hurling or football, I was more interested in athletics, a love that was inbred into us by my dad. Derek Conroy, Cyril Bailey and John Kennedy would have been three of best friends in primary school and were all GAA mad and these friendships were major influences on my growing love for both hurling and football.
- What are your memories of GAA in primary school?
I loved going to matches before we were old enough to play and watching the older teams in the school playing especially football. They had some exceptional footballers like Mike Burns, Sean O’Meara, Kevin O’Carroll and Barry O’Brien to name a few.
Playing ourselves my best memory in school was winning the schools’ hurling county final in a replay in Nenagh against Thurles. We only got the replay after Alan O’Dywer scored a goal that I am still sure was wide but the net wasn’t secured to the goalpost and it slipped in beside the post. I can’t remember who the umpire was but he was well connected with Éire Óg!
With Éire Óg we won the Under-12 north and county double in 1984 which was an unbelievable achievement, a culmination of great work being put in by Jimmy Conroy, John Tucker, Denis McSweeney and John Martin. I’m sure I probably forgot someone so apologies to everybody else who drove us up and down the country to challenge matches and encouraged us all the way.
- What are your memories of GAA in secondary school?
Winning a Munster under-16½ hurling schools final and being part of the first Nenagh CBS team to ever make a Harty Cup Final. The journey to the Harty Cup final was more enjoyable than the day but it was great to be part of the first team to ever represent the CBS in the Harty final.
A lot of great work was being put in by Jimmy Conroy and John Tucker with the underage hurling in the club and John Kissane, Patsy Bonnar and Denis McSweeney in the football and we enjoyed another under-16 county hurling title but it was in football where the club were unbeatable winning under-14 north and county, Féile na nGael finals, under-16 and minor finals. I think it was the first time any club had won all the titles with the same team up the years from twelve to minor.
- Did you play any other sports and for whom?
I played rugby from under-14 with Nenagh Ormond and played soccer at underage with Toomevara. Later I played soccer with Ardcroney and with Nenagh Town. With Nenagh Town I was lucky enough to play with an exceptionally talented team that got to the Munster Senior Cup quarter-final.
- Who were your boyhood heroes in the GAA and why?
Jack O’Shea in football, he was just an immense presence in a great Kerry team with a great engine and was always someone I hoped I could someday be as good as. My hurling hero growing up was Philip Kennedy, John’s brother. Philip was the only person from Nenagh Éire Óg on the county senior team when I first started playing and had been part of a team that had won two All-Ireland under-21’s as well. The picture of Jacko and Philip with John Kennedy, Cyril Bailey and I after they presented us with our under-12 north and county medals still hangs in our kitchen at home.
- Who was your biggest influence in hurling in the club from your early years and why?
At an early age it was definitely Jimmy Conroy, he gave so much time to the young lads in the club honing their skills. He was a gentleman and very dedicated to the club and the young lads he was looking after. At later stages John Tucker and Jimmy Minogue were also great mentors.
- Who encouraged you to pursue a career in Gaelic football and how exactly did they do this?
I always had the support of the likes of Denis McSweeney, John Martin, John Kissane and Patsy Bonnar over various stages of my early career. They would always give you the encouragement and confidence in yourself to believe you can be better than anybody else on the field. Their belief in me and my team mates always made me feel that we should fear no one we played and we always believed that we would win every underage game we played in our own age group. My parents also gave me great encouragement and supported most decisions I made in relation to my sporting career. They rarely ever missed a match no matter where it was played.
- What are your memories of playing for North Tipperry and Tipperary up to under-16?
There was no under-14 county team back then and your first opportunity to play at inter divisional level was at under-16. I was invited to join the under-16 county team when I was fifteen for a weeks development and training in Carrignavar in Cork which I turned down as I didn’t think I would be able to get a week off from the shop at home. My Dad wasn’t happy with me when he found out but it was too late then. Work was important but so were Gaelic games. The following year I played for the inter divisional team and went with the county team to Carrignvar for the weeks development and training. I ended up with a nasty injury and concussion on the last night of the training week in a match against Clare and spent ten weeks with my arm in a sling. I have no recollection of that match nor the incident where I got injured.
- Can you discuss your minor and under-21 career with Tipp?
I played minor with Tipperary in 1990. I was a sub in 1989 when we got hammered by Cork. In 1990 we were beaten by a Kerry team that included Seamus Moynihan, Billy O’Shea and Declan O’Keeffe. We were only one or two points down when we were reduced to fourteen players and ended up losing by six or seven points. That Kerry team went on to win the All-Ireland minor that year. I played three years on the under-21 team, the first year we were well beaten by Cork in Paírc Uí Chaoimh. I captained the team the following year which was a great honour and was joined in midfield by clubman Kevin Coonan, again we were beaten by Cork and ended up with fourteen men early enough in the game. The following year we played Waterford in the Munster semi-final and after being well behind at half-time we came back and drew the match with Kevin Coonan popping over frees from everywhere. We were beaten in the replay after extra time, Tipp scored twelve points in the replay with eight coming from Kevin and three from myself. We lost the Munster senior final just over a week later but the under-21 loss hurt more as I felt that team should have done a lot better.
- Can you discuss your senior career with Tipperary? Highs/Lows/funny stories/toughest opponent etc.
In August 1991, Seamus McCarthy was appointed senior manager and I was invited to join the panel again and I had no hesitation in accepting. Seamus had been my manager in 1990 with the minor team. He was passionate about Tipperary football and from early during my term under his management of the minor team there was a great respect for each other between the two of us. I expected to have to work hard to get into the starting team and went to my first match against Limerick in the All-Ireland B championship expecting to warm the bench for the day. That lasted fifteen minutes and I was called into the game. I started every game for the next four years during Seamus’ management with the exception of a few games I missed through injury. Seamus built a new team and a lot of the minor team that got to the All-Ireland final in 1994 made up the backbone of his teams and we made the ‘93 and ‘94 Munster finals under Seamus. Winning the All-Ireland B in 1995 was the highlight, we beat Longford in the final and was some reward for a few seasons when we had got to the Munster final without success. The low of my senior career was losing to Kerry in the ‘98 Munster final when we really fancied our chances, we should have beaten Kerry the year before in Kerry and had beaten a full strength Kerry team in the McGrath Cup earlier the same year.
- Did you ever play Railway Cup?
No, I was never fortunate enough to play in the Railway Cup.
- Did you ever play colleges football?
I played Trench Cup (tier below the Sigerson) with DIT and we were beaten in the semi-final. I also played in a Trench Cup Final with LIT two years later which we lost. LIT wouldn’t have been known as a football stronghold but we had a very good team that included Hughie Emerson of Laois who was at the time regarding as one of the best in the country.
- How did you cope with the struggle between hurling and football within the club? Was it a struggle?
At underage it wasn’t a struggle as we all played both codes and football matches rarely ever were played while the senior hurling championship was in play. We played in three county football under-21 finals in a row, all staged in November to January, including the famous Effin Eddie match, winning two of these and winning the hurling under-21 in the same year.
When you played senior football for the club it was a different matter if the hurlers were playing in the coming week or two. We played Clonmel Commercials in the county quarter-final in 1992 and only lost out to a team with six members of the senior county squad by a point. The team that played that day was left without most of the under-21 team that had won the previous year’s county final as the hurlers were playing in the following weeks. Clonmel went on to win the county final and drew the Munster final with Laune Rangers. To know that you could potentially be good enough to win the county final and not be able to field your best team was very disheartening. Hurling was always going to be the main focus of the club but when the club pulled out of the 1995 county championship it was the catalyst that led to me moving clubs.
- What was the attitude to football in the club in both juvenile and adult? Were you encouraged and supported by the club in your football career?
The club were always very supportive of my football career. However the North Board weren’t as supportive which was highlighted by the Board fixing the North hurling senior semi-finals for the same day as the Munster football final against Cork on the same day.
- Were you ever tempted to transfer to another club in Tipperary to get regular club football?
No, but when the opportunity came to play in Dublin I jumped at it. I played four years with St Sylvester’s in Dublin at a time when each game was just below inter-county level such was the strength in depth of all teams.
The combination teams were set up a couple of years after I left the club and I would have loved the opportunity to play in one of those teams.
- Was it a huge source of frustration that in Eire Og football was always treated as a second class sport to hurling?
Yes but football in general was treated that way in Tipperary even when the county seniors were performing very well every year.
- What was your greatest successes in football? Your biggest disappointments?
Winning an All-Ireland B, McGrath Cup and Dublin Senior Cup medals were highlights. Losing the 98 Munster final was definitely the biggest disappointment, the county had a sense of expectation that this was a really good Tipp team that had already defeated Kerry that year. We had three forwards who would have made any inter county team in Browne, Lambert and Cummins and coming up four points short again was hard to take.
- What players did you admire most at club and county level and why?
At club level, Kevin Coonan had as good a pass and scoring ability as anybody in the country. Later I played club with Glen Ryan who was exemplary in everything he did. At county level you had the likes of Declan Browne, recognised as the best player Tipperary ever produced, unfortunately most people only saw the glimpses of the talent he had. He was exceptional and the toughest opponent I ever played against.
- How did the training regime in your day at inter county level compare to today?
These days the training has progressed to be near to seven days a week between team and gym training. We did three to four sessions a week and gym was left up to yourself. It definitely has gone to a different level of fitness levels now.
- What are your opinions on how football has developed from your day to today?
It had gone quite negative with mass defending and it was refreshing to see two teams who played football all year getting to the All-Ireland this year. While I would have loved to see Mayo win, the fact that they both play such an expansive game is positive. Football had become such a poor relation from a spectator point of view with some very poor games in the past number of years that this year has been great with Dublin Kerry being a stand out match.
*Please note that this interview took place in 2013 and Mark is referring to the All-Ireland final between Dublin and Mayo which Dublin won 2-12 to 1-14.
- What is your opinion on the future of football in Tipperary, especially after all the underage successes of recent years?
It always takes a couple of years for minors to fully make the break through and make an impact, very few of even the best minor teams make a meaningful impact straight away and often don’t reach prime until they are 22/23. If they can keep the group together we should hopefully see the fruits of these underage teams in the next two to three years. The one area where we have been lacking over the last fifteen years is having powerful highly skilled midfielders. The team I played on were very lucky to have Brian Burke, Derry Foley and John Costelloe all who played Railway Cup and two who played Compromise Rules for Ireland. You need to be able to compete at midfield if you are going to be successful and the minors had a super midfielder in Ian Fahey. Three of Dublin minor team that Tipperary beat in that final started for Dublin in this years All Ireland which has to encourage the Tipp players.
- Are you currently involved in any club and if so what is your role?
I am involved with the club here in Naas. I played up to last year and this year I joined the selection team for the Senior B team. We were beaten in the county semi-final. The intention will be to get involved more over the coming years once the kids are old enough t come to some of the training/matches.
- Did you suffer any major injuries?
I fractured my jaw in a league game in 1995 which kept me sidelined for over three months. In the Munster final in ‘98, I injured my groin in the last few minutes and ended up having a Gilmour groin operation. I didn’t play for seven months after that game, the rehab from this injury was the hardest as most of this was done on my own, I never enjoyed training on my own!