Prolonged summer adventure fuelling optimismacross Tipperary and Clare
BONUS territory is happy country, but it's never enough. So, as Tipperary and Clare enjoy the rare experience of playing championship football in late July, they are not reflecting on how they got so far, but rather on what happens next.
This is the first time that Clare have been in the final 12, while it's Tipperary's second venture, having last been there in 2002. Interestingly, the route for both to the fourth round qualifiers has been very different. For Clare, a one-shot hit against Limerick took them into the Munster final and, by extension, a guaranteed last-12 spot, while Tipperary have slogged their way through the first three qualifier rounds, beating Offaly, Wexford and Antrim.
At face value, Tipperary's route looks more noteworthy, but Limerick's qualifier performances, (beat Longford in extra-time, lost to Kildare in extra-time), looks good for Clare, even if they lost the Munster final to Cork by 12 points.
The gods could have smiled on the Banner by giving them an easier draw than Kerry, but they will play the hand they have been dealt with as much determination and structure as possible.
"It's about driving yourself on to the limits and seeing where it takes you. The Clare lads are learning all the time," said manager, Micheal McDermott, who is doing a good job with them.
Clare came within one point of promotion to Division 3 this year, whereas Tipperary dropped out of the group and will be back in Division 4 next spring, three years after being in Division 2. Yet, there's a sense that their league form this year misrepresented their true worth.
Tipperary started the campaign among the favourites for promotion, but misfired over the early games, lost direction, had a change of manager in late March and were eventually relegated.
Significantly, though, they stabilised over the last two games, drawing with eventual champions, Longford and beating Offaly, before showing signs of further development when giving Kerry a far more troublesome time than expected in the Munster quarter-final.
Two months and three qualifier games later, Tipperary are within one win of a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. And since they head for Mullingar to take on a Down team which is facing the six-day turnaround test, there's huge optimism in Tipperary that the big prize is achievable.
Unlike Clare, who have suffered under Kerry's dominance for years, Tipperary and Down have never met in the championship. They have, however, clashed three times in the league fairly recently with each winning once and one draw. Down beat Tipperary in a Division 3 group game in Thurles in 2009, but Tipperary gained revenge some weeks later, winning the final by a point after extra-time. And when the sides met in Division 2 in Newry in 2010, it ended level.
Those memories, plus the confidence gained from three qualifier wins, will feed into Tipperary's confidence banks today.
New manager, Peter Creedon, admitted after the win over Antrim last Saturday that they would have been pinching themselves if told some months ago that three qualifier wins were on the cards. However, he introduced a note of realism by pointing out what lay ahead.
"We're doing well, but it's a big jump next week against a Division 1 team," he said. He didn't know at the time whether it would be Donegal or Down, although one suspects he would have preferred the latter, a wish which was granted the following day.
At the start of the football championship, it didn't seem likely that Munster would have four representatives in the last 12, but it has turned out that way, albeit at either end of the scale with Cork (11/4) and Kerry (3/1) at the elite end of the market, while Tipperary (175/1) and Clare (1000/1) close it out at the other end.
Still, it's a real accomplishment for the latter two to be still in the race, while, among others, the likes of Tyrone, Galway, Armagh, Derry and Monaghan have checked out.