I told them to come back here - to not let this be the end, says proud Kearns
Published 22/08/2016 | 02:30
At the journey's end, Tipperary took a moment for reflection. They gathered in the middle of Croke Park, arms linked in a tight circle.
It was a very different scene to the one that greeted their win over Galway on their last visit. That day, their fans streamed around to the Hogan Stand to greet their heroes.
This time they stayed together on the sward they had emptied themselves into for the previous 70 minutes before leaving the pitch to warm applause from all side of the stadium.
In his media briefing afterwards, manager Liam Kearns revealed what he said in those quiet moments. This, he told his troops, could be the start of something, rather than the end.
"I said to them, 'this is your stage, this is where you need to be, this is where you've got to come back to'," Kearns said.
"I told them I was really proud of them. And that's the truth. The second half, I said 'I was as proud of ye as any game ye've played'.
"Because we could have laid down. We were six points down, had problems at the back. We'd been beaten in the middle of the field, beaten up for 10 minutes before half-time.
"We made a promise to each other in the dressing-room that we weren't going to lie down. And they didn't lie down. Not even to the very end when they went down to 14 men.
"I told them to come back here again and not let this be the end."
Almost right from the off, Kearns' side were putting out flames.
Robbie Kiely's dismissal on a black card in the eighth minute looked like a body blow. That suspicion was confirmed when Keith Higgins waltzed down what would have been Kiely's channel unchallenged to set up Mayo's first goal.
As underdogs, Tipp needed all the little things to go their way. However, All-Ireland semi-finals are rarely kind.
They had no luck for Mayo's second and decisive goal either. With just two points in the game a total miscue fell to Conor O'Shea and he rolled the ball to the net to finally kill off Tipp's challenge.
"(Kiely) was a huge loss, we brought in Shane Leahy and he's a bit inexperienced, it was his first time on that stage, it was tough going," said Kearns.
"Diarmuid O'Connor caused us problems at wing-forward and unfortunately we had to take Shane off. It took us until half-time to sort things out in the dressing-room but we did sort it out.
"We got back within two points and I was confident we'd take it to the wire. It wasn't to be because we got a few more knocks and we probably can't sustain those knocks.
"We were six-three up when Robbie got the black card and going well; I thought we should have been more up, but when they got a run on us they caused problems.
"Andy Moran caused us problems inside and they got on top in the middle third. They dominated there, that's where the damage was done.
"Ultimately we didn't get the breaks, we had two injuries and the depth in our squad probably told against us in the end. We had a black card that was very hard for us to take, and a red card at the finish. The second Mayo goal was a killer, he was going for a point, slipped and it ended up at the feet of the player who pulled on it for a goal.
"We didn't get the breaks but the players never gave up, they played to the end and played football the way it should be played. They put everything in, they're totally committed, and I couldn't be more proud of it."
In theory a least, Tipp football should be in a stronger place heading into 2017. When Kearns picks up the phone to invite players to training for the new season, he should be getting more enthusiastic answers than he has to this point.
Before he gets anyone else on board he will have to try replace Peter Acheson for next season as the captain is planning on spending at least a year abroad.
However, if they can bolster the panel in other areas, Kearns believes Tipp can sustain their new-found status among the football fraternity.
"I let others judge if we can get back, but the boys have been very comfortable out here, they haven't left themselves down in Croke Park in the quarter or semi-final," he said.
"Mayo have been in six semi-finals in a row, this is our first time here.
"My view is that Tipperary can aspire to come back to this level on a regular basis, providing we get things right, total commitment - there's a lot of good players in Tipperary who could have been with us today but weren't, so we need to get our set-up right back in the county".
And Kearns doesn't necessarily see any football success as a threat to hurling in the county.
"I'd hope this run will galvanise the players in the county, and the supporters, to get behind the football team. There's no reason the county can't compete in both - we've shown it this year, we've reached the football semi-final and the hurlers are in an All-Ireland final. So why not?"
Kearns was impressed with Mayo but warned they'll have to find more to get over the line next month.
"They're trying to win an All-Ireland, they're going to have to improve. Dublin or Kerry will be a fair test for them in the final," he said.
"I give them a lot of credit insofar as they're adapting their game and changing tactics from game to game, and during games. That might have been a criticism of them in previous years.
"Their panel and play might have been stronger two years ago - I saw them the year they drew with Kerry and were beaten in a replay in Limerick, and I thought they were at their peak then.
"I don't know if they're at their peak now but they're in a final.
"They have another shot and they're getting a lot of breaks now, so maybe their name is on the cup this time.
"I hope it is, I'd love to see Mayo win an All-Ireland. I'm a Kerryman and maybe Kerry will be in the All-Ireland, but I'd love to see Mayo win an All-Ireland.
"But sentiment doesn't come into it. It didn't come into it today and it won't come into it in four weeks' time."