Sunday 25 June 2017

No resting on laurels as Ryan bids to buck Tipperary trend

Premier men determined to avoid pitfalls of past and retain All-Ireland for first time since 1965

Michael Ryan: ‘He knows it is a long and precarious road to September’. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Michael Ryan: ‘He knows it is a long and precarious road to September’. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

For the Tipperary GAA Yearbook, Michael Ryan gave a couple of hours of his time to JJ Kennedy, the local newspaper columnist and long-time hurling chronicler. Kennedy last interviewed Ryan in 2000 when he had just retired from inter-county hurling. Now, 16 years on, he listened to him review his third All-Ireland triumph, the first as manager, having also served as mentor in 2010 under Liam Sheedy.

Recall of that first encounter at their latest rendezvous was instructive but the lessons imparted of false dawns were not unique. Ryan finished with one Celtic Cross, won in his first year playing. His second year hurling with Tipp, 1992, joined the others, before and after, in which the county failed to successfully defend an All-Ireland title.

Tipperary's failure to retain the All-Ireland since 1965 has been a needling irritation but less of a fixation than winning the title in the first place. The upcoming Championship will be only their sixth title defence attempt in over 50 years. Kilkenny have retained the All-Ireland nine times since Tipp last managed to do so. Cork enjoyed successful defences three times, and Galway also managed it once, in 1988.

If Ryan makes one pledge to himself for 2017, it will be that Tipp won't fail through complacency. Since winning their 27th All-Ireland, the process of shielding players from extravagant celebration and expectation has begun. Before leaving for the team holiday in Miami, where they rang in the New Year, the players brought the cup on its rounds of the county but in a noticeably more orderly way than in 2010.

Players' movements and actions are now better accounted for. A request for Tipp and Liam MacCarthy to make a joint appearance on The Late Late Show was declined - this was another mark of a more circumspect approach to public appearances and a wariness of celebrity.

Tipperary have not always handled that aspect of winning terribly well. Ryan spoke to Kennedy of "that typical Tipperary softness" which seeped in over the winter months before their last All-Ireland title defence six years ago, although he had left the set-up following Sheedy's decision to stand down, before returning for the 2013 season as a mentor under Eamon O'Shea.

"A lot of people would say that it's driven by the players," Ryan added. "Actually it's driven by the whole county. We celebrate too long and too hard, and when we're poor we really kill too hard as well - you know, we're neither as good nor as bad as we think we are."

In the same interview Ryan addressed the lessons of his own playing career, having been asked if he had any regrets.

"Absolutely, and for various reasons; one very obvious one being the complacency that we suffer from here in Tipperary. We had a really good team; the forward line we had, I suppose in today's terms they were Kilkenny-esque, so we expected more, but expectation and delivery are not the best bedfellows."

In 1990, the year before he made the senior county team, Tipp dramatically combusted against Cork in the Munster final, the day Mark Foley came up with 2-7 and Babs Keating's line about donkeys not winning derbies was recited by the Cork manager as being reflective of Tipp's over-confidence and hubris. But even if guilty of some complacency or celebration excess, that Tipp team, with its talent, should have won more All-Irelands than it did and '90 was seen as one that definitely got away.

By '92, when Cork defeated them again during their next title defence, it could be reasonably argued that the team had begun a process of decline. Galway shunted them out of the Championship in the All-Ireland semi-final in '93 and a year later Clare shocked them in Munster, ending Keating's reign.

By then Ryan was well versed in the wavering fortunes of being a Tipp hurler, aware of the difference between perception and reality and how they could not trade on reputation alone.

As he related to Kennedy in their recent interview, hurling skill was not the issue he identified as critical when he succeeded O'Shea as manager. He believed that they had enough hurlers to win an All-Ireland - the implication being that they did not have, as he saw it at that point, enough character or single-mindedness.

Clearly they were not far off - the challenge was to alter the mindset a few degrees. It was long accepted that they needed more grafters, fellas who would bend the knee to nobody. And the kind that would not rest on their laurels.

First Ryan needed to identify his solution mechanism; then he needed everyone to buy into it; after that he needed to hope that that would be enough. He saw delivery on all three counts. To retain a title demands many things being right, not least a renewed collective ambition and vigour of the kind that Kilkenny made routine. They made it the norm; it remains to be seen if Tipp can create the same in-house conditions.

The ultimate target of course is to empower the players to embrace those ideals and carry out those duties without thinking, to lead from inside and take ownership. By the time they reached the All-Ireland final last September, Ryan's management team was relaxed enough to feel it had done all it could and that the players had prepared as well as they'd hoped they would. After that it was a case of letting fate take its course.

In short time he was able to bring a freshness to the team, with the elevation and accelerated impact of Dan McCormack surprising many and being symptomatic of a different dynamic. McCormack became the embodiment of the new regime, really. Though he had three years as a county minor and an under 21, Tipp's success in those underage groups wasn't lavish and in those teams he didn't stand out. In 2012, '13, '14 and '15 the county under 21s were beaten by the eventual winners of the competition. They were producing good players but not winning.

But Ryan saw something in McCormack he felt the team required and his huge turnover count outlined his value to the team, work that was often hidden from view and under-appreciated.

There was nothing flash about the majority of his contributions but there would have been no All-Ireland without Dan McCormack. Who would have pencilled him in for a starting place this time last year? How many other managers would have seen that potential and entrusted him the same way as Ryan and his backroom team did? Why did it seem that only 'Bonner' Maher could do this job effectively for the earlier part of the decade? Ryan didn't accept this but he was also able to identify what players he needed, and where, in order to be able to address the issues.

Tipp, he decided, were not going to be blown away by physically superior teams any more.

Fluidity in selection is another stamp of the Ryan regime, with 2010 captain Eoin Kelly admitting to the surprise caused in Mullinahone when one of his own club men, Sean Curran, made the Championship team against Cork. He was one of four Championship newcomers. Donagh Maher and John O'Keeffe weren't on the panel for that match, nor the next, but both made the final Championship 26 on the back of impressive displays for their clubs in the local championship. The impression that the door was always open to anyone willing to signal their credentials gained added credibility in light of those selections. The recent retirements of Gearoid Ryan, Conor O'Brien and Paddy Stapleton, while not hugely surprising, leaves openings for others to now bid for attention.

In the final months Steven O'Brien made a huge impression in training matches, in games that were specially designed to prepare for the tests ahead, condensed and highly physical, with reduced playing areas and 17-man teams. Known more as a footballer, O'Brien's size and athleticism is an appealing selling point to Ryan, who has made no secret of his liking for strong ball-winners. The recent Tipp failings in that middle third, in not winning primary possession and not matching other team's work-rate, have been addressed.

Irrespective of how the fringe players fare, the fact that they are making viable cases for inclusion will be enough to guarantee stiffer competition and rid the training ground of the comfort zones which had lured Tipp's into traps in the past.

The challenge is clearly mapped, with Cork awaiting them in the Munster quarter-final and the winners lined up to face Waterford in the semi-finals. Limerick or Clare will provide Munster final opposition if they overcome the opening two hurdles. Through the straight route there are five hard games to negotiate but the confidence they will have gleaned from winning an All-Ireland, properly harnessed, is a powerful asset.

If Kilkenny don't carry the same level of threat to those Tipp ambitions as they did in 2011 (though the usual warnings apply), then Clare and Waterford are clearly better than back then and Galway have valid hopes of winning an All-Ireland, based not least on recent Championship performances against the current title holders over the last two years. To end that long wait for a second title in succession will require another Herculean effort and plenty of good luck too.

"We have become the county of the one in a row," as one local observer says, only half-jokingly. "The last time it was less of a factor, winning it again, because we had stopped Kilkenny winning five. But people are talking about it now."

Not Michael Ryan though. He knows it is a long and precarious road to September.

Three That Got Away

1972: Corked

While the '71 All-Ireland win might have been seen as a bonus, with players ageing, Tipp led Cork by ten points early into the second half of their '72 Munster semi-final meeting. Undeterred, Cork fought back to earn a draw and won the replay. Tipp went into unimaginable decline, failing to win a Munster championship match for ten years after '73.

1990: Ass-Bite

Babs Keating protested his innocence, saying his remarks about donkeys not winning derbies weren't with Tipp in mind but it became a talking point after Munster's greatest rivals hooked up in the 1990 provincial final in Thurles. Tipp won the All-Ireland the previous year for the first time since '71 and were favourites to retain it. But Cork's Mark Foley, a newcomer, wrote himself into Munster final legend by scoring 2-7 and Tipp were out.

2002: Hand of DJ

With the All-Ireland semi-final in the melting pot, DJ Carey made a darting run and picked out Jimmy Coogan who scored the goal that broke title holders Tipp's resistance and ended the reign of Nicky English.

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