Colm Keys: The makings of a new football powerhouse
The milestones have been stacking up relentlessly for Tipperary football over the last few years.
A Munster U-21 success in 2010, courtesy of a final victory over Kerry on Kingdom soil; an All-Ireland minor success in 2011 with a list of vanquished counties that really catches the eye -- Kerry, Cork, Meath, Roscommon and finally Dublin swept aside in a memorable campaign.
In beating Kerry in that provincial semi-final they came from 11 points down in the first half at Semple Stadium to win after extra-time, landing a first victory over the Kingdom in the grade for nine years.
This year the credits have continued to roll, and once again Kerry have been in the eye of the storm.
Two wins over the game's most celebrated county -- the second a 2-14 to 1-14 win in the Munster final -- has really begun to grate in the Kingdom. It ensured the first back-to-back Munster minor titles for Tipperary since 1934/35.
Just below the surface of these minor successes, the conveyor belt continues to churn out quality players and quality teams.
Tipperary are Munster champions at U-17 level, and the U-14 team which won last year's provincial championship repeated the feat at U-15 level.
The tentacles are reaching further and further into mid and north parts of the county, where hurling holds a vice-like grip over the hearts and minds of the young people. Even out west, where rugby is strong, football is beginning to win small skirmishes.
Scroll down through the names of the Tipperary minor football and hurling teams and you'll see 10 different dual players. Contrast that with the crossover between the senior hurling and football teams. Just one club -- Eire Og Annacarty -- has a foot in both camps.
The awakening in Tipperary football is infectious.
Last Saturday, two groups of cyclists took off for Thurles from opposite ends of the county on a fundraising venture aligned with the county senior football team's third successive qualifier match at Semple Stadium.
Organised by the friends of Tipperary football and driven on by that fountain of enthusiasm David Power, the man who has presided over the recent minor successes, it looks like raising in excess of €20,000.
Even the senior footballers -- who dipped badly earlier this year with five league defeats precipitating John Evans' departure and a drop to Division 4 of the league -- have been caught up in the movement again.
When six senior panellists, including former captain and key marksman Barry Grogan, emigrated and others committed to the Tipperary intermediate hurling team, they looked like they were in freefall.
With Kerry first up in Munster, for the third season in a row, the fear of a rout was palpable.
But it didn't materialise, and under the astute management of Peter Creedon, they have built steadily through the qualifiers -- winning games against Offaly, Wexford and Antrim -- their best sequence for 14 years.
A win in Mullingar on Saturday against Down would earn a first ever All-Ireland quarter-final place. Heady times indeed.
But it is all being done against the backdrop of empty terraces and stands in Thurles.
True, they have increased the attendance from first-round qualifier to third-round qualifier (both standalone fixtures as opposed to the Wexford game, which was part of a triple-header) by 100pc. But a jump from 1,310 to 2,536 hardly represents a mass movement.
As Tipperary PRO Ger Ryan points out, economics are a factor. Tipperary GAA teams are still involved in six different competitions: minor, U-21, intermediate and senior hurling, and minor and senior football.
"There are some hard choices to be made by Tipperary people but we feel that the crowds are improving and getting behind the team," he said. "But we are predominantly a hurling county."
Last weekend, there was a notable development, when a range of divisional club championship matches fixed for Sunday and Monday evening were called off at the 11th hour -- further evidence of progress, given the contrast with Andy Shorthall's departure as manager in 2004 when two dual players were forced to play championship hurling matches in the week leading up to a qualifier match against Fermanagh, which didn't subsequently go ahead.
The movement has been in full flow for five years now, with Evans one of the central architects until his departure in late March.
It was former chairman Barry O'Brien who challenged the county to think big when he assumed the position in 2009.
"I said at the time that we should aim to win an All-Ireland senior football title before the 100th anniversary of the last one in 1920," he recalled.
"Of course it was ambitious, but we have to have something to aim at. It was my priority to put football on an equal footing with hurling and I think that has happened. They are both treated in the same way."
Power has also been central to it all, having taken charge of one of the first development teams at U-14 level in 2007. "Belief is the key. A lot of these guys don't have the baggage of losing to Cork and Kerry down through the grades, and it shows now," he said.
"And there are so many good people involved now too. When we started, the point was made that we either did it right or didn't do it at all."
O'Brien relates a story from the dressing-room before the All-Ireland minor quarter-final with Meath last year.
"There was a bit of apprehension that they were coming up against a big football power, but the fact was we had won four All-Ireland (senior) titles before Meath had ever won one," he said.
"They were reminded of that. We have a football tradition too. We're a big county, a big GAA county and there is no reason why the two codes cannot exist at the same level."
It begs the obvious question. Can they eventually topple the hegemony that has existed in Munster football for the best part of a century?
They're heading in the right direction and Saturday is potentially another small step.