Tipperary footballers thank Evans for latest renaissance
Tipperary football is striving to follow a template set by their Limerick neighbours, writes Damian Lawlor
L ATE last year, Tipperary football manager John Evans took the unusual decision to play his team's home games at Semple Stadium instead of their customary venue, Ardfinnan.
It was a bold move. For years Tipperary football teams dreaded playing at the home of hurling for fear of being exposed in the ground's wide-open spaces. Instead, they preferred to keep it tight in the south Tipp village.
But ahead of the 2009 campaign, Evans and his team decided to go for broke. They had moulded a young, vibrant team they felt could cope with the freedom the stadium provides and wanted to make a statement. The management felt it was important to show players the faith they had in them. "It's where every young fella wants to play," Evans says. "It's the field of dreams and the lads want to defend the right to play in Semple Stadium."
It was refreshing to see the manager embrace the challenge of playing sides like Offaly, Louth and Longford in Thurles, rather than slugging it out in a compact ground, hoping to frustrate opponents every now and again. That's the type of competitive edge Evans has given the team in just under two years of his reign. But Evans clearly believes in what's at his disposal. Long before his time, the plan was always simple: get the ball to midfield and from there feed Declan Browne as quickly as possible.
Mind you, it was sometimes effective; they reached a few Munster finals and won the Tommy Murphy Cup. They drew with Cork in the 2002 provincial decider. But since then, they reverted to the bad old days with the odd win here and there to cling to but little else. Last year, however, Evans oversaw promotion from the shadowlands and last Sunday, against Offaly, they delivered their best display since that '02 final. So dominant were they throughout that Faithful full-back Conor Evans was replaced early on after being roasted by Brian Coen who scored 1-3 from play. Later on, Offaly's '08 footballer of the year Alan McNamee was also called ashore as the home team clinched a third win of the campaign in the unfamiliar environs of Division 3.
With a promising championship campaign ahead (battles with Clare and, if they win that, Limerick are on the summer horizon), they must grab the bull by the horns and seize the opportunities coming their way. Evans has his own ideas on that score.
"I left Kerry a year and a half ago and fellas were asking where in the name of Christ I was going," he recalled. "It took a bit of time to whip them together but winning is a habit and they are young lads growing in confidence and backed up by the experienced Eamon Hanrahan and Kevin Mulryan. It's a pacy game we're playing, a tough defensive game. But we have a long road to go yet. While there's no harm in dreaming, the reality is there is still a lot of hard work to be done.
"The way I'm looking at it is that seven points will be required to stay in Division 3 and if the other teams keep taking points off each other, you could be looking at nine to get promoted.
"We're not looking at any other goals except staying up and any aspirations the team has will have to be reassessed after round five, with two games to play." But with home tussles against Louth and Longford still to come after today's tough away assignment with Roscommon, it's in their own hands.
For now, maybe we should simply admire the progress the Kerry garda has made with this team. Supporters will hope they can follow the
template Liam Kearns' Limerick side created at the start of the decade when they propelled themselves from no-hopers to Division 1 football and Munster title challengers.
As with Kearns in Limerick, Evans commands the complete respect of the Tipp players and under his tutelage they operate a style of football seldom seen in the county team. They spend a lot of time on the ball, working it out of defence. And when they do break, they surge forward quickly. Wing-backs Brian Fox and Chris Aylward are extremely mobile and love to surge forward. Up front, they operate a two-man inside attack, looking to isolate Coen and Barry Grogan, who was the top scorer across all four divisions of the national league last year.
At centre-back, St Vincent's All-Ireland club winner Hugh Coughlan is holding the fort while Robbie Costigan, one of their star players last season, is absent while playing soccer with Clonmel Town. With Coughlan's impressive displays, there will be no easy path back into the first 15 for Costigan, rated one of their star performers last season.
The sad thing is that so few of the locals have bothered to watch them. Only 510 were present to see them play Down on a bitterly cold day but if you thought that was bad, only 365 turned up on a cracking day for the Offaly game.
While hurling will always be the number one sport in Tipp, what's to stop people supporting two thriving inter-county teams? "I have a certain thought on this," Evans says. "Football in Tipp, if it's going to rise, will have to rise on the back of displays like the Offaly one. Then people will come to watch you. Let's get the displays right on the field of play and then people will come and watch good football. It will happen by word of mouth. That's what will bring supporters, not advertising. You advertise yourself by giving good displays."
In his brief time with the county, Evans has demonstrated that Tipperary football is no longer a laughing stock. Only fully committed players make his squad; indeed each time they've played this season six panellists have been disappointed not to get match-day squad places. In the past, there wasn't even a challenge to make the first 15.
Looking down the road, he has to be a serious contender for the next Kerry manager, having already delivered an All-Ireland club title with Laune Rangers.
For now, though, no matter what happens today, these are sunny times for Tipp footballers.