Sunday 16 June 2019

O'Brien's 2020 vision for Tipperary football looking less fanciful now

Tipperary manager Tommy Toomey. EirGrid GAA All-Ireland U21 Football Championship Semi-Final, Dublin v Tipperary. O'Connor Park, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.
Tipperary manager Tommy Toomey. EirGrid GAA All-Ireland U21 Football Championship Semi-Final, Dublin v Tipperary. O'Connor Park, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.

When Barry O'Brien told Tipperary County Board delegates in December 2008 that the Premier county should be winning All-Ireland minor, junior, U-21 and senior football titles - yes, football - by 2020 it seemed to many, inside the room and outside, to be nothing more than a fanciful notion and an appeasement exercise by the incoming County Board chairman.

After all, Tipperary was, is, and always will be hurling country. 'The Home of Hurling' the sign reads coming in from the Kilkenny side. No mention of football on any roadside signs.

O'Brien's declaration might, indeed, have seemed like nothing more than a pipe-dream but, once again, people are sitting up and taking notice of Tipperary football. Last Saturday, in case it escaped you, the Tipperary U-21 football team defeated a hotly-fancied Dublin team to reach the All-Ireland Under-21 Football Final. Nothing won yet, but a major scalp taken by the Premier against all perceived wisdom.

A fluke? Hardly.

The year after O'Brien's bold statement, Tipperary contested a Munster minor final, losing to Kerry, having beaten Cork in the semi-final.

Two years later, in 2011, their minor team beat Limerick, Kerry and Cork on the way to winning the Munster title. Less than three months later they were All-Ireland champions (beating Dublin in the final).

Three years ago - in 2012 - a minor football team came to Tralee and handed a Kerry side a seven-point beating. Kerry went around the Munster houses and wound their way back to the Munster Final that year. They met Tipperary again. Again, Tipperary beat them. In the semi-final Tipperary had beaten Cork by four points. The Premier boys richly deserved that Munster title.

In 2013 Tipperary lost the Munster final to Kerry, but had accounted for Cork in the semi-final.

Only last year for the first time in several years did a Tipperary minor team ship a heavy Championship defeat, going down in Thurles to Kerry by 2-18 to 0-7. Kerry, of course, went on to win the All-Ireland title.

Running parallel to those minor campaigns were the Tipperary U-21s. In 2009 they lost the Munster Final by a point to Cork. The following year they were Munster U-21 champions, pipping Kerry by a point in Tralee.

The next two years weren't kind to them, and then in 2013 they reached the Munster final again, this time going down lamely to Cork by 11 points.

Last year they met Cork again in the final, coming considerably closer to the Rebels, eventually losing out by three points.

Earlier this month they finally reached the Promised Land; beating Cork in the Munster Final by 1-15 to 3-8, denying the Rebels a fifth successive Munster U-21 title.

Last Saturday's heroic All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin - the defending champions - moved Tipperary a step closer to the county's first All-Ireland U-21 title, and a step closer to ticking another box on O'Brien's wish-list of All-Ireland titles.

Of course, there's nothing won yet by Tipperary this year, and it's well proven that there is little connection between success at minor / U-21 level replicating itself at senior level.

Indeed, while Tipperary have been making very decent inroads against Munster's 'Big Two' at underage level, there has been scant evidence of a similar narrowing of the chasm at senior level.

Until Tipperary can beat Kerry or Cork in the Munster Championship and contest a senior Munster Final, then O'Brien's vision of the Sam Maguire being lofted in Liberty Square in Thurles will remain just that: a vision.

It's clear that huge and great work is being done by football people for football people in Tipperary, and last weekend's U-21 win reinforces the commitment in time and resources being put in to the secondary game in the county.

It's probably impossible to quantify, but at a guess it's probably more than what the Kerry county board is committing to hurling in this county.

Kerry have shown in recent weeks that they can get up to competing in Division One, and they are well capable of winning a Christy Ring Cup. But aspirations of Kerry winning the Liam McCarthy Cup? Steady on.

But that's the thing about aspirations. They can be fanciful and seemingly unattainable until men and women of vision take them and work to make them a reality.

Barry O'Brien was one such man, and John Evans, David Power, Peter Creedon and current U-21 manager Tommy Toomey (pictured) - among many, many others - have shared that dream. The players, too, have clearly bought into the grand plan, and maybe in the next couple of years the senior team will begin to close the gap on Kerry and Cork, or go further into the Qualifiers and higher up the National League divisions.

Six years ago there were many who probably sniggered at Barry O'Brien's lofty notions for Tipperary football. Since then they have claimed a provincial and All-Ireland minor title, and are 60 minutes from doing a Munster and All-Ireland U-21 double.

Who's laughing now?