Tipperary exodus suggests manager Michael Ryan has set out his stall
The close choreography of Tipperary retirements suggests the manager has set out his stall
The last of four Tipperary hurling retirements, announced in quick succession, did not come as a spectacular surprise.
At 34, and a county hurler for 15 years, Lar Corbett was the only remaining link to the team that won the 2001 All-Ireland and no longer a regular starter. The departure of Eamon O'Shea, in whom he built a close relationship and trust, made the decision even more plausible.
Of deeper significance is how it facilitates an expected reinvention of Tipperary under Michael Ryan. A county measured against the pinnacle of September 5, 2010, has lost the player most identified with that day. It has also lost the player most identified with the worst day of all those that followed, though he was not necessarily held responsible, the All-Ireland semi-final defeat of 2012.
The win in 2010 is a chapter Ryan, though part of the management team, will, one suspects, be happy to close. Recently Eoin Kelly, the 2010 captain, spoke of his expectation that Ryan's management will lead Tipperary in a different direction. This point wasn't explored further but this is not a unique viewpoint and some of this change will be influenced by the loss of many of the cast of 2010 and the various failed expeditions since.
Apart from Corbett, Tipperary's starting midfielders from this year's All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, Shane McGrath and James Woodlock, have gone. Conor O'Mahony, a powerful member of the defence in 2010, is also at an end. Of the 2010 team that started against Kilkenny, eight have now retired.
That September day five years ago has held up an unflattering and unforgiving light to the teams that strived in vain to emulate it. But the day is still cherished, and Corbett's monumental part in it. His three goals hadn't been witnessed in an All-Ireland since 1970, when Eddie O'Brien of Cork did the same, 12 months after being substituted in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. For that alone Corbett is guaranteed an exalted place in his county's tradition.
The close choreography of the retirements is of an order that suggests the new manager has spoken to each player and set out his stall. Now was the time to declare, rather than dithering over the winter. It fits into the sense of Ryan being a manager without obfuscation, clear in his goals and preferences, and not dissimilar, as if often the case, to how he played the game himself. Certainly he is not lacking in knowledge or intimacy, having been a part of six of the last eight seasons under two different managers.
Interpreting these retirements as indicative of low confidence in the new management or Tipp's prospects would be a misrepresentation; of the four, only two could constitute a surprise. McGrath is 31 and might have more to offer, while Woodlock is only 29. But there are often other non-hurling considerations for those heading into their final years. In Corbett's case, aside from the mileage, he has been troubled by knee injuries requiring constant injections and he recently had a second addition to the family. O'Mahony, who came on against Galway last August and scored a point, was an All-Star in 2008 and '09 and has had injury troubles, more recently back trouble. He may, like his colleagues, depart with some regrets but there were extenuating factors which need to be recognised in any objective analysis of his final years.
The new manager has a long association with Tipperary as a player and management team member and now, front of line, he is being counted on to rediscover virtues for which Tipp were renowned through their history, but appear to have lost or misplaced. These are sometimes referred to admiringly - if a little cartoonishly - as 'manly'. He will, it is being assumed, ensure Tipp have a stomach for battle and demonstrate aspects of the fierce competitor for which Ryan himself was never seen to be short. Some still remember Ryan's bone-shaking tackle on Tomás Mulcahy of Cork in the summer of 1991 as being one of his signature moments: he was hard, fierce, uncompromising. If every man strives to create a team in his own image then if feels reasonable to expect a more visible demonstration of those elemental traits in the Tipp teams we'll be seeing in the next few years.
The irony for the older followers is that there was a time when the current champions of those hardened and steely characteristics, Kilkenny, considered themselves too soft and pliable and accommodating. They were once where the Tipperary hurlers are accused of being now. The blood-and-thunder 1968 league final against Tipp was seen as a turning point for Kilkenny in adopting a more physical stance and if Tipp had a complaint then it was that their hurling virtuosity was not given sufficient credit, the 'Hell's Kitchen' caricature being hard to shake.
The former Tipp player and manager Len Gaynor spoke of that long barren period after 1971 when they stopped even being contenders as something nobody had anticipated, a time when, as he memorably put it, "everyone became selectors". There is an element of that now too. But Tipp now, at least, know they are contenders. Making them winners, turning defeats like this year's All-Ireland semi-final into victories, is Ryan's challenge. The list of retirements allows him some breathing space in a county with high expectations. But, as ever with Tipp, there will be a lot of armchair selectors telling him how to pick his team.
An opportunity to see what he brings won't be available until Tipperary open their league campaign against Dublin in February, having opted out of the Waterford Crystal tournament. Declan Fanning, not unlike Ryan as a player in embodying steely defiance, is retained as part of the backroom team, listed as a coach, and John Madden and Brian Horgan are new additions. Fluency of forward movement and space creation were Eamon O'Shea's calling cards; Ryan is seen as someone for whom winning your own ball will be paramount, an area where Tipperary have repeatedly come up short in pursuit of All-Irelands since 2010, and moving the ball without needless deliberation. The construction of the forward line is likely to be influenced by those considerations but Brendan Maher, who found himself there this year, may be restored to midfield in the absence of McGrath and Woodlock.
A concern might be the absence of an obvious forwards' coach, or a coach who was a forward in his day, with the aforementioned having served their time as players in defence. Ryan, having worked closely with O'Shea, isn't without some knowledge in that field. But all that - forward tricks and tactics - mean little if you don't win the ball in the first place.
"Michael Ryan of old would be an old-fashioned corner-back and I am sure he has moved on from that," says Michael Cleary, who played with Ryan and his brother. "They would be salt-of-the-earth people, very principled and no matter how he does he will give it 100 per cent and his only agenda will be that Tipp wins. He will have no other agenda. Integrity and honesty are key in describing Michael Ryan as a person."
Different to the O'Shea years is the quick decision-making on older players. O'Shea was seen to some extent as overly loyal and reluctant to press players into retirement or force swift calls. Already Ryan has removed many of the links to the 2010 team and its legacy of failing to fulfil that apparently glorious potential. Yet in spite of those criticisms, in the last two years Tipp came within the width of a post of adding another All-Ireland and are current Munster champions, won convincingly earlier this year.
Cleary is hoping to see more direct play, not being a fan of modern systems. "I personally would like to see us get away from playing through the lines, the short passing and sweepers and that sort of thing. I think during all the time that hurling survived the very dynamic of the game was that it could not get bogged down in tactics.
"Hurling is crying out for a more direct game and bringing the individual battles back into it. I think that is what hurling has thrived on and I would hope that Mick might lead Tipp back to something like that. I know it is evolving as a game and won't go back to where it was, but maybe the next stage might involve more of the old way."
It will be interesting to find out if Ryan agrees when Tipperary begin the league campaign next spring.
Sunday Indo Sport