'We can be right up with the big boys' - Liam Kearns has high hopes for Tipp
Published 26/11/2015 | 02:30
Liam Kearns knows what it's like to hit the glass ceiling once, but the frustrating experience hasn't deterred him from making another attempt at shattering it.
Little more than 12 hours had passed since he was formally appointed as Tipperary football manager but, despite suffering from a chest infection, he was already making plans yesterday.
There's a squad to be met, pre-season to be organised, countdowns to begin.
Nine weeks next Sunday, Tipperary begin their Allianz League Division 3 campaign and, almost inevitably, it had to be against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds.
Limerick have played a big part in Kearns' managerial career, taking him and a dedicated group of players so close to winning a prize that has eluded the county since 1896.
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In 2004, Limerick were literally inches away from beating Kerry in the Munster senior final, but a thumping, long-range free-kick by Eoin Keating was fetched from just above the crossbar by Darragh O Sé, just as it seemed certain to secure what would surely have been the winning point.
The game finished level; Kerry won the replay and went on to capture the All-Ireland title. They beat Limerick in the 2005 Munster semi-final, after which Kearns ended his six-season spell as manager.
It was a period where Limerick had not only won the Munster U-21 title for the first time in 2000 but also forced their way into Division 1, where they reached the semi-final in 2004.
They lost by two points to Kerry, but it showed how far they had advanced.
There was also that famous 10-point Munster championship victory over Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoímh in 2003, a first for Limerick over the Rebels since 1944.
Ultimately, though, Kearns and Limerick were left nursing sore heads after a painful clatter against the glass ceiling, which appears to protect Kerry and Cork from intruders who want to take the Munster title.
Now, Kearns is all set to try again, this time with a Tipperary squad that's starting from a higher base than Limerick in 2000.
"When I came into Limerick, I saw a rating where we were 31st out of 33 in the country. That showed how much work we had to do to get anywhere. We eventually got ourselves into the top eight and were unlucky not to win the Munster title," said Kearns.
He spent two seasons as Laois manager in 2007-08 and worked with John Evans in Roscommon this year, but it's the Limerick experience that drew Tipperary in his direction after Peter Creedon's departure.
Tipp appear to be full of promise, having won an All-Ireland minor title in 2011, provincial minor titles in 2011 and 2012 and U-21 titles in 2010 and this year.
The seniors finished third behind Armagh and Fermanagh in Division 3 this year, ran Kerry to six points in the Munster championship and reached Round 3 of the qualifiers, where they were out-gunned by Tyrone.
It's a solid starting point for Kearns but there's still a lot to be done if Tipperary are to develop into consistent challengers to Kerry and Cork.
The task will be made all the harder by the absence of Colin O'Riordan, who has signed for Sydney Swans.
"Colin is one of the best players in the country - it's a pity we won't have him, but that's the way these things go. A chance came in Australia and he decided to have a go," said Kearns.
Seamus Kennedy will also be absent next year, having accepted an invitation from Michael Ryan to join the hurling panel, while George Hannigan and Ger Mulhair are carrying injuries which will disrupt them in the early part of the new season.
"You don't like being without anyone, but the good thing is that Tipperary now have a lot of very talented players," said Kearns.
"We all know that success at minor and U-21 brings no guarantee whatsoever at senior level, but it's still good to have so many players who have proven themselves against the best in the underage grades."
One of his biggest challenges will be to instil real confidence into the players so that they believe they can match Kerry and Cork.
That won't be easy, since history's heavy hand is weighing down on them.
However, he achieved it with Limerick, gradually moving up the rankings until they reached second place behind Kerry in Munster in 2003 and '04.
"Limerick would probably have won a title in some of the other provinces in those years. That was a really good squad of players," said Kearns.
"They got ahead of Cork in Munster but just couldn't get past Kerry. In fairness, neither did anyone else except Tyrone in those two years."
Kearns has mixed views on proposals to re-shape the All-Ireland championship so that Division 3 and 4 teams would compete in a separate competition if they didn't win their provincial title.
"There are plenty examples of teams from those divisions who did well in the qualifiers. Even this year, Fermanagh made it to the All-Ireland quarter-final," he said.
"I can see some benefits in a second competition in certain circumstances but, at the same time, every county wants to go as far as they can in the All-Ireland championships. That's always the goal."
What happens in the GAA's decision-making rooms isn't of immediate concern to the Kerryman right now, as he joins a relatively small band of managers who have taken charge in three counties.
"The challenge is to get Tipperary being the very best they can and showing it on a consistent basis," he explained.
"They are aspiring to being right up there with the big boys and my job is to put everything in place to make sure they have a real chance of doing that. After that, we'll see where it takes us."