Evans lauds his Spanish trip for Tipp
The GAA president may be encouraging counties to 'camp local' from now on, but Tipperary manager John Evans was yesterday appraising the benefits of what a week in an old convent high up in the mountains of Spain has done for football in the county.
Yet, Tipperary's Munster U-21 title triumph -- courtesy of Wednesday night's victory over Kerry in the final in Tralee -- shouldn't come with the surprise with which it has been greeted.
After all, they made their exit in the competition in three successive provincial finals to the future All-Ireland champions -- Cork in 2007 and '09 and Kerry in '08.
On each occasion the margin of defeat was no more than four points and in last year's case Cork needed an injury-time winner to ensure their progression, which culminated in All-Ireland success against Down in Portlaoise.
Evans has long since recognised the importance of winning an underage Munster title as the "next step" in Tipperary's grand plan.
And on Wednesday night, that target was impressively achieved with the help of a week-long trip to an old convent -- now a five-star resort -- near the Andalucian medieval town of Antequera.
Hotel Convento La Magdalena was home to the senior Tipp football squad for one week at the end of February and, with one eye on the provincial U-21 title they felt they had left behind a year earlier, Evans bumped up the numbers with seven U-21 players.
And it was there that the seeds were sown for Tipp's victory in Tralee that represents a sizeable breakthrough for football in the county.
"We asked the seven of them there to be leaders and they came home with new-found belief. They transferred that to the U-21 squad and it was a lethal cocktail to go and beat Kerry as we did," said Evans.
The trip was initially designed as a reward for the senior footballers' double promotion as they leaped from Division 4 of the NFL to Division 2 in successive years. But they spurned a sun holiday in preference for a training week during a break in the league.
Evans and Tipperary chairman Barry O'Brien did the reconnaissance, opting for a stay in a complex away from the mainstream resorts used by the higher profile teams.
"Everyone was under the impression that we were in La Manga and we left them (to) think that was the case, but this was perfect for us. In fairness to our chairman, he did a lot of research on it," he said. "We got away from the beaches, the hard surfaces and the bikinis to go high up into the mountains. It was a very productive week and the value to those U-21 players couldn't be overstated."
"We took Peter Acheson, Ciaran McDonald, Alan Moloney, Conor Sweeney, Sean Carey, Brian O'Meara and Padraig O'Dwyer. They trained with the main group three times a day and it was no coincidence that they were among our most prominent players the other night."
League performances improved on Tipp's return -- they drew with Down, beat Meath and lost narrowly to Donegal and Armagh -- but it wasn't enough to stave off relegation.
Still the U-21 triumph is now a powerful tonic for Evans and Tipperary to continue on their crusade to put football in the Premier County on a sounder footing.
"We know that hurling is the No 1 game in Tipperary, I've said that to the Board and to Liam Sheedy, but we want to create an environment where we are a very good second choice. Winning an underage title in Munster is the next step in that process," he said.
Evans, a Kerry native himself, believes Tipperary are now a competitive county in a province that continues to go from strength to strength.
"It's a guarantee that the two teams to be promoted from Division 4 of the NFL will be from Munster. Kerry and Cork are the two strongest teams in the country, so the standards are being driven up everywhere," he said.
Evans would like to think that players like Bernard O'Brien, Darragh O'Dwyer and Donal Lynch will now press hard for inclusion in the months ahead.
He still continues in his capacity as director of football in the county and leaves the wrangling over this position to the Tipperary Board and Croke Park until they resolve something. But clearly it's a position he's making count.
Early yesterday morning, he was back in the county working in High School Clonmel ahead of their All-Ireland 'B' colleges appearance next week and last night it was back down to training with the seniors.
The last time a Munster county broke the duopoly at U-21 football was 2000, when Liam Kearns' Limerick triumphed and advanced to an All-Ireland final.
It sparked a sustained spell of competitiveness for Limerick which saw them force a replay out of Kerry in the '04 Munster final and lay the foundation for their current well-being again under Mickey Ned O'Sullivan.
But Evans is realistic enough to know that Tipperary need much more time to make that sort of impact. "It won't happen this year, it won't happen perhaps even next year -- but what Wednesday night will do is convince us that we can compete with the best."