Tipp will not be caught on the hop this time
Michael Ryan tells Jackie Cahill Premier expectations are high
REGRETS, they've had a few. Mistakes, they've made a few of those too – but Michael Ryan and Tipperary are relishing a shot at redemption.
It's not often that sport provides a second chance, but assistant manager Ryan knows that this is one of those rare opportunities.
When the revered 2010 All-Ireland-winning coach Eamon O'Shea returned to the set-up in 2012, this time as manager, the general consensus within the Premier County was that the good times were about to roll again.
Ryan was also back on board and the feelgood factor within Tipp was palpable. But as O'Shea, Ryan and new coach Paudie O'Neill discovered, turning back the clock just wasn't as simple as flicking a switch.
The time machine malfunctioned and with searing honesty, Ryan admits that Tipp tried to recreate that old magic, but came up short. In a short space of time, the game had moved on and key players were three years older.
The chickens came home to roost when Tipp suffered two championship defeats in two outings last summer.
Back-room staff were left with a harsh winter of self-analysis and Ryan realises that this time, the approach has to be different.
Last season, as Ryan told those present at the recent Tipperary supporters club launch, was "a disaster."
Defeats to Limerick in the Munster championship and Kilkenny in a titanic qualifier saw Tipperary bow out of the championship in early July.
An All-Ireland SHC medallist in 1991, the assistant manager says: "To be self-critical, when we came back in last year, maybe it wouldn't have been obvious, but I think we tried to recreate exactly what the model was in 2010.
"And (we) made various assumptions that we could do that, that our players were still the same guys. It was incredibly disappointing – don't underestimate how disappointing it was.
"I know we're all Tipperary supporters and it hurts us all, but it hurt us particularly badly."
Just how badly it hurt was evident in O'Shea's eyes when he emerged from a desolate dressing-room to speak to reporters after the Kilkenny defeat.
The 'manliness' of his players had been publicly questioned in the days leading up the game, but O'Shea was in no doubt – Tipp had the men. And they certainly had the hurlers.
Tipp had developed a free-flowing style based on fluent movement, but then manager Liam Sheedy, O'Shea and Ryan stepped away.
The team's next leader, Declan Ryan, adopted a more direct style of play and, while the next two Munster titles were annexed, Tipp came unstuck against Kilkenny at the business end of the season. A disastrous 18-point defeat against the Cats in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final saw Ryan depart and the clamour began for O'Shea's return.
The story goes that he was seen at Croke Park on that fateful semi-final Sunday with his head in his hands, wondering what had become of what he had helped to create.
Last year, it was Kilkenny who again ended Tipp's season, but a degree of pride was restored in the back yard of their ancient rivals.
But Ryan reveals: "If there was one big lesson coming out of Nowlan Park for us, and for me particularly, we didn't do enough to mix it up for those (Tipp) guys.
"Kilkenny don't change. It's not a very complex game they play and yet we fell into trying to play exactly that game, and outfight them with passion or whatever.
"That was a mistake. We should have done more to mix it up a little bit, probably play to our own players' strengths. We just don't want to comtemplate that kind of a year again."
Looking back, the Upperchurch-Drombane clubman believes that untold damage was done against Limerick as Tipp collapsed late on in the Munster championship clash at the Gaelic Grounds.
As it turned out, the consequences were catastrophic. Instead of looking forward to a Munster final, and with the added prize of a direct route to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, Tipp were pitched into the Nowlan Park cauldron and Kilkenny turned the championship lights out.
"Yeah, the Limerick one," Ryan sighs. "For me, I didn't quite get it on the day just how serious this was going to be. We'd like to think that we didn't underestimate Limerick, because we had no right to underestimate Limerick.
"You're very conscious that there's a banana skin out there and it's always out there, no matter who you're playing." Tipp's league season had, by Ryan's admission, been a choppy one.
They copped a hiding against Cork in the opening round, but recovered to contest a final against Kilkenny. "We didn't play particularly well on the day, it didn't go our way," Ryan recalls.
"It was a five-week break then to the championship and I think that did untold damage. We probably lost control of the players for two weeks, which was understandable. They had to go back to their clubs.
"But it killed our momentum and it just came at the real wrong time for us. Guys have to play with their clubs, but this year our attitude and our plan would be that we'll make sure to see them within that period regardless."
When push came to shove last year, Tipp suffered from that chronic old inability to win primary possession in attack. The heat came on, Tipp players were horsed out of it more than once and the accusations came thick and fast. "Can't win their own ball" and "nice hurlers, but they buckle when the heat comes on" were just two of the frequent ones.
Ryan believes that it's a case of devising a style that accommodates the raw material at the management team's disposal.
And he admits that it is difficult to find the type of "savage" player that Tipp possessed back in the 1960s.
He explains: "It's much vaunted and you'd hear a lot of hype around – Tipp can't do this and we're not good at this and the other thing.
"Look, if you take a reasonably balanced view, we're never as bad as we think we are.
"Straight after 2010, neither were we as good as we thought we were. It's always a slippery one – we won the U-21 and the senior in the one year.
"They were highly intertwined, there was a common thread of players there, a common style and the momentum was with us.
"You have to look at the material you've got and form a pattern... can you define what is the Tipperary style of play? Take off the rose-tinted glasses. We're not back in the '60s, we don't have these savage players.
"If you were to run a very cold measure of where Tipp are at or where we have been or what's our style over the last 40 years at this point in time, it's difficult enough to define, but I think it has evolved with the type of player that has been available.
"I was lucky enough to come in to catch the end of Babs' great team, but we had a phenomenal team.
"Players of the calibre of Nicky English, Johnny Leahy, Michael Cleary, they were phenomenal guys. But you also had Donie O'Connell who was a huge part of that renaissance, Bobby Ryan, Cormac Bonner, several guys.
"We just need to be able to adapt and play to our strengths. Once you understand what they are and you're happy with the key personnel that you have, I don't think that it has to be the same year on year. It's a very moveable feast."
O'Shea ran the rule over a training squad of some 45 players during pre-Christmas challenge matches and throughout the successful Waterford Crystal Cup campaign.
He smiled last Friday night when he spoke about seven sideline wettings, but Ryan acknowledges that preparing a team and playing games in current weather conditions is "no flash".
It's the type of environment where selectors can learn who really wants it, who really wants to get their hands dirty, who's really not afraid of getting hurt.
"This is basic, no flash," says Ryan, when reminded of the recent visit to Kerry in the Waterford Crystal Cup.
That was what can only be described as a bleak afternoon, rain cascading down the aluminium sheeting and just 357 spectators present at Austin Stack Park in Tralee.
Ryan said: "You could feel sorry for yourself, but nobody felt sorry for themselves. It's not beyond Eamon O'Shea, Paudie O'Neill or Mick Ryan to be ankles deep in s****e walking across a pitch in Tralee. It's not beyond us in the least.
"We're lucky that we're asked to work with this bunch and that the county board have that faith in us. Anything we ask of those players, there's no problem.
"We got a great day's work on the Saturday – got a run on Banna Beach; it wasn't a pleasure run, it was a run.
"Got a very good hurling session in John Mitchels, they were really good to us and they have a fantastic new set-up.
"And we got a gym session done later that evening – that's three sessions and it's almost like a mini-camp for us. These guys, they're up for work."
Ultimately, Ryan remains optimistic and while he senses a renewed energy and hunger within the county, he knows that sheer hard work and discipline, both on and off the field, will help Tipperary on their targeted climb back to hurling's summit.
He insists: "They're just a really decent, hard-working bunch, much-maligned for right or for wrong.
"Nonetheless, they are our hurlers. We don't have any better hurlers out there. We can't pick a 'B' team nor would we want to. I think people are optimistic, hopeful. I don't think it's built on any false expectation that we're going to climb our way easily back to the top of the hill. We're not.
"It's going to be step by step, handful by handful, poor victory by poor victory. We don't mind. As long as we're working towards a decent performance in the league.
"We want to arrive at the latter end in contention and give ourselves a chance in the knockout games. that's where we want to get to, because those knockout games are a really good prelude to the championship.
"But we have only one goal in mind – Limerick on June 1. We want a second chance at this.
"You're right, it was the Limerick game that undid us last year. It hurt us in more ways than we realised at the time.
"It sucked the confidence away from the whole set-up and it's a fragile enough thing. When you get it, hold onto it with both hands."
Michael Ryan and Tipperary don't intend to be caught napping twice.