Challengers to every presumption
Tipperary's emerging footballers continue to defy the doubters
Little over a week ahead of his county's date with Tyrone in the All-Ireland under 21 final, the Tipperary football chairman Joe Hannigan is in high spirits. A structural revamp begun in the final years of the last decade helps explain this spell of success but he knows they have been fortunate too. The quality of players has been exceptional. And those players appear to possess the character essential to win matches, even when their plight has looked hopeless.
Like in 2011 when they were 11 points behind Kerry in the Munster minor semi-final. What team could expect to come back from that? They went on to win the All-Ireland, defeating the strong favourites Dublin in the final, their first minor title in 77 years. They won a first Munster under 21 title in 2010, beating Kerry in a tight game in Tralee, and since have been repeatedly challenging prejudice and presumption.
In 2012, they rolled over Kerry, twice, and Cork to win the Munster minor title again, retaining it for the first time since the 1930s, before Mayo stalled them in the quarter-finals. They were seven points down against Kerry in the Munster final and found a way back. Over the last nine years they have contested more Munster under 21 finals - seven - than Cork or Kerry.
Hannigan is earmarking the 2020 All-Ireland senior football title, to mark the centenary of Tipp's last win in 1920. "That is the plan," he says. We are at a point in football's evolution where his ambition is no longer preposterous.
Ten years ago Declan Browne captained Tipperary when they won the Tommy Murphy Cup final in Croke Park. He won a Munster minor football medal in 1995 and was the county's first All-Star but his career was about compromise and knowing your place. The year before the Murphy Cup, the footballers had a stand-off with the county board which led to the team boycotting a qualifier with Fermanagh. The board set a local fixture involving the dual player Micheál Webster a few days before. In protest, Tipp gave a walk-over. Fermanagh went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-final.
The Murphy Cup win didn't go unnoticed. An 11-year-old Steven O'Brien, man-of-the-match in the recent under 21 win over Dublin, became interested because a neighbour, Peter King, was on the team. "Just to see someone who lives over the road wearing a Tipp football jersey in Croke Park and winning a trophy, like, it was eye-opening for me," says O'Brien. "And I thought: I can do this."
His home club, Ballina, is in North Tipp where hurling has ruled and football offered little more than a token distraction. Ballina have no adult football team yet it still managed to produce a player of O'Brien's calibre. He has been on the county development squad system since 14 and never lost a Munster Championship game through to under 21. Championship wins over Kerry and Cork are strewn over the last eight years of his football career and he can add two over Dublin. He heads to Parnell Park on Saturday hoping to be part of the county's first All-Ireland at under 21 level.
O'Brien is one of four players on the panel who also won All-Ireland minor hurling medals with in 2012 and he is part of this year's under 21 hurling panel. He says he had no preference for one sport over the other. "It just seems I am getting the better bounce of the ball with the football. The goal now is to drive on and try and get a Munster senior football championship in the near future."
Beating established counties is something that has become ingrained. "We didn't lose, we were in a lucky era I suppose; we grew up not fearing these guys, we knew we were well able to put it up to them. We just weren't afraid of them, we believed in ourselves, we went out to win. Gone are the days that Tipp just go out to compete."
He recalls the day they recovered from 11 down to Kerry in Thurles. "We came in at half-time scratching our heads, and at the time David Power and John Evans sat us down and said, 'Look, ye can just throw in the towel and go out as a normal Tipp minor football team that couldn't get over the line against Kerry or ye can go out and give it a right lash' - and we did. We went out there with a kind of go-lucky attitude. Threw everything at them. That win was definitely a major step, it certainly gave lads belief."
The loss to Mayo in 2012 drove the same group of players this year. "We had a brilliant year, what a Munster final to win, to beat Kerry in Tralee, Cork in Cork and Kerry again in the final, unheard of in Tipp to be honest. We went out against Mayo and we certainly didn't underestimate them, we had our homework done, but it just didn't happen for us. Everything Mayo kicked seemed to go over. Losses like that have really built our character, like this year anyway we really have the bit between our teeth, we wanted to prove ourselves that we were better than that."
An instrumental figure in the Tipp football renaissance has been David Power, manager when they won the minor in 2011. For a time he was also looking after the under 15s and under 16s before eventually relinquishing those posts. He played minor football for Tipp and his father, Michael is a former football secretary. Power was young and ambitious and realised that they were going nowhere unless each development squad team was well-managed and coached.
"If you were Joe Bloggs off the street you could be over the county under 14 team in Tipp," says Power, "that's what it was like. Around that time, 2009 or 2010, we said, 'Right, we have to stop this thing of just getting anyone over teams, we need quality people'. The players are not stupid, if they don't see good people over teams and good structures in place, they won't play.
"So, we had to make Tipp football attractive; we needed good mentors and proper structure and to make sure the players enjoyed playing Tipp football. Those were the key elements to it. The football board and county board main executive officers offered the back-up and the Friends of Tipp Football helped raised finance. But it's not that there has been a massive amount of money spent; the big investment was time. Getting the right people to put the work in."
In 2011, they won the county's first Munster under 14 title, and this year's minor batch is highly rated. There was occasional friction with hurling interests but in 2011 two dual players opted for football because it seemed to be more enjoyable and less pressurised. "Actually some of the hurling management ended up helping the football, not directly but indirectly, because players wanted to play with a smile on their face," says Power. "In hurling in Tipp there is big pressure, every year the expectation of winning an All-Ireland.
"Colin O'Riordan (midfielder on the current under 21 team) has opted for football. That is massive call for a young fella. In Tipperary that is a huge call, but he believes in football. Also there is a big progression with Tipp players in colleges football, Steven O'Brien was on the Sigerson Cup team of the year, with DCU; five years ago would you have a player playing Sigerson from Tipperary?"
Power remembers taking a team to play the Dublin minors in Ballymun in 2010 and getting beaten by up to 20 points. "We absolutely got annihilated; those are experiences we have had to go through. But what I was trying to do was to have us playing against the best, that we were not codding ourselves. That's what we were trying. Val Andrews was over them. It was played on the astroturf in Ballymun and it was the longest journey home. It hasn't all been plain sailing."
On another occasion he was given an insight into Tipp's place in the pecking order. "I was trying to play the big teams, we went up to Armagh and actually did quite well, and then I rang the Tyrone secretary at the time and I said, 'I am David Power, minor football manager from Tipp, I wonder could I have a contact name and number for the Tyrone manager'; he gave me the number and it was the Tyrone hurling minor manager's number he was after giving me. And I put down the phone, 'Hmm I thought, that will come back to haunt them one day'. And maybe it'll be next Saturday. I thought that was disrespectful."
But the attitudes needed changing from within first. There was an evening in Mitchelstown when they brought 30 players to face Cork in a challenge. "At half-time we were beating Cork comfortably, and we decided to switch to the other 15 for the second half, and some said, 'Jesus David ye have a chance of beating Cork', and it was only a friendly; we were happy with small victories."
This year's achievements with the under 21s, managed by Tommy Toomey, are all the more noteworthy with five of the attack from their minor days marked absent. Philip Quirke, who scored three points when coming off the bench in the 2011 All-Ireland minor final, is recovering from a cruciate injury. Colman Kennedy, scorer of the crucial goal in the same game, is studying in the US along with another of that side, Greg Henry. John McGrath and TJ Ryan are also sidelined by injury.
"We knew since last July we were going to be missing those players," says O'Brien, "and, Greg and Colman, I was talking to them after the game against Dublin and they're delighted for us but they are so disappointed at the same time that they are not involved. And these lads would do anything to wear the Tipp jersey, and I suppose that gives us another incentive, to go out and do it for these lads who have been great servants of Tipp at underage over the last number of years and would only love to be out there with us. And to give them something to be proud of over there in America."
Power says beating Tyrone would be "a huge achievement for this group of players" and "if they don't win it's still a massive achievement what they are after doing. We are now playing against the elite in Ireland, that is where we wanted Tipp football to be. The next step is to transform it into senior success. Last year they (senior team) got promoted. They've retained Division 3 status which is not bad because the age profile is young. You have to be targeting a Munster senior championship within the next two to five years. It is not a stupid target, that is a realistic target, definitely."
In 1984, Tipperary won a Munster minor football title and reached the All-Ireland final losing to Dublin. Brian Burke was part of that generation that went on to contest Munster senior finals in the next decade but lost in 1993, '94 and '98. In '94, John Leahy got injured playing football with Tipp causing uproar when he missed the hurling championship game against Clare, which they lost. "That really put the kibosh on getting any more hurlers," recalls Burke.
"Nicholas English was a fabulous footballer. I remember him playing underage, he was one of the best in Munster. Declan Ryan, God he was a fantastic footballer, I remember playing under 21 with him. I don't want to sound like an oul' fella, but this is the best group of fellas I have ever seen playing for Tipp. It is very hard to convert the Tipp public. Even when we were in the Munster final the support was very poor. When we played Kerry in '98 there were more Kerry people there than Tipp people which is very disheartening for the players."
Burke sees the geography expanding, with players emerging from outside the traditional football heartland of the south. Kevin O'Halloran has come out of Portroe. "I never seen a footballer from Portroe back in my day," says Burke, "and it's fantastic. Winning draws players in too. I think the breakthrough will definitely come at senior, they are progressing the whole time there."
Letterkenny's Michael McGeehin is coach to the senior and under 21 teams, who have been training together. McGeehin has coached a spate of teams including Mayo, Fermanagh, Limerick and Clare, and seen a lot of football over the last 25 to 30 years. "I think there is a dynamic about this bunch of players, their leadership qualities, they lead by example. They are an exceptional bunch of young men. Whether that is enough to get over the line against Tyrone that remains to be seen.
"Tyrone's structures have been deemed best practice in the North for a long time. Obviously they've got a strong schools system as well. They are competing at a high level in the MacRory Cup. They've a couple of players who have experience at senior level. They've a good management team. Peter Donnelly has come in who was with Cavan last year. They are a fit team, a physical team and they are comfortable on the ball."
He sees Tipp as coming from a different place. "Donegal were beaten in an Ulster under 21 final a couple of weeks ago and there were four or five pages of analysis in the local papers on what went wrong. We won the Munster title and we were lucky to get a page. That is the backdrop."
Last year the seniors under Peter Creedon almost toppled Cork in the Munster semi-final before going out to Galway in a high-scoring qualifier. At a couple of qualifiers they shared billing with the county hurlers, broadening their audience. "I'd like to think that we exposed the Tipp hurling supporters to a brand of football that was attractive," says McGeehin. "I remember at the game in Laois we got a standing ovation coming in at half-time. That probably spooked us a little bit because we leaked a couple of points and had to finish strong to win that game. They weren't used to that."
That looks like it is about to change.
Sunday Indo Sport