'There's light at the end of the tunnel for us, but it's a long way off yet'
Football in Tipperary has benefited from John Evans' input and he's not done yet, writes John O'Brien
J OHN Evans emits the first of many hearty chuckles. He has been asked whether, in his third year as Tipperary football manager, he is happy with the progress they've made. He remembers words his father once said. His dear late father had a saying for almost every situation. "If you know where you are coming from," he said, "then you can tell how far you've gone."
And where were Tipperary coming from? They were in the doldrums, rock bottom. Three months before Evans was approached at the back end of 2007, Declan Browne had announced his retirement from inter-county football and Tipperary had lost its shiniest jewel. Browne wasn't yet 30 but years of lugging huge burdens and witnessing Tipp football lurch from crisis to crisis had, in football terms, made him old before his time.
Evans could instantly see the hammer blow the loss of Browne had induced. At his first meeting with county board members, he had asked them for an honest appraisal of where the game was at. They were admirably candid but, after a few weeks' research, he wondered whether they hadn't painted a bleak enough portrait. Did they realise the extent of the apathy that reigned? The sense of hopelessness that abounded?
In Evans' estimation, there were five teams who could harbour realistic ambitions of All-Ireland glory in any given year. There was a gap to the second tier and then a gaping chasm to those lurching in the bottom tier. In Division 4, where Tipp resided, he saw three distinctive groups again and it was Tipp's shame that they had slumped to the bottom of football's food chain.
"Listen, we were off the Richter Scale," he says. "We weren't there at all. The top three in Division 4 were Antrim, Offaly and Wicklow. The next group was Waterford, Clare and Carlow. Then you had Tipp, London and Kilkenny. Two and a half years on, I'm bringing you back to the deep hole we were in and looking up. We're only half way out of that hole. There's light at the end of the tunnel for us but it's a long way off yet."
You wonder if it was bravery or foolishness that brought him to Tipp. He chuckles again. Johnny Mulvihill, he says, has a lot to answer for. Mulvihill is a Listowel teacher who had lived in Tipp and trained the footballers. Browne's departure had driven home the need for intensive treatment and the county board had approached Mulvihill for advice. Mulvihill pointed them towards Evans. "A north Kerryman nominating a south Kerryman," Evans laughs. How could he refuse?
It was the challenge too. In the late '90s, after a dazzlingly successful spell as manager of Laune Rangers, he had taken a break from football. He had lost his son, Seán, to cancer and needed time to clear his head. Then the club fell on hard times and came calling for him again. He remembers Pat Spillane asking him why he had gone back. Hadn't he done it all already? But it was the challenge. All his life he could never shirk a challenge.
In different circumstances, he might be training green-and-gold bluebloods to All-Ireland titles, but his life has followed another path. Each time the Kerry job fell vacant, Evans had his supporters and never kept it secret that his hat was in the ring. The powers that be never came calling and he never harboured bitterness or dwelt upon the disappointment. "Life has taken me to Tipperary," he says, "and that's great too. Who knows down the road what might happen?"
After coaching Laune Rangers and the Kerry under 21s, it was past time that Evans and senior inter-county management became acquainted. He wasn't hindered by a lack of experience. In Killorglin, his first job had been coaching minor teams and they were the basis on which he built the All-Ireland winning team of 1996. He saw no reason why the same template wouldn't work in Tipp. It wasn't rocket science.
At the beginning he told them it was a long-term project and that they would have to sweat blood to make it happen. And he knew he had to show the way himself. He thinks he spends at least four days a week in the county and knows days when he will have trained three teams. He retired as a detective last year and that has lightened his load. His wife jokes that she saw more of him when he had two jobs to juggle, but he can't do anything half-heartedly. He is addicted to the damn thing. Totally and absolutely.
He loves the all-consuming nature of it. Because the structure when he arrived was primitive, he had to assume multiple guises. "I had to become the scout, the trainer, the coach as well as the manager," he says. "Only later I was able to get other people to fill these roles. The exciting bit was being the scout. Going to minor games, junior, intermediate. Picking out guys I knew could be an asset to me."
He likes it that when he attends games, it lends the occasion an added edge. Players want to deliver in front of him. And in Thurles this afternoon he will watch the juniors as keenly as the seniors. Junior is his development squad now, exclusively for emerging players under the age of 23. The old practice of rewarding players for years of service had no practical use for him so he had it done away with.
He works tirelessly because he knows there is talent in every nook and cranny of the county. A sure sign of progress is the strides football has made in the hurling north. George Hannigan and Philip Austin, from Shannon Rovers and Borrisokane respectively, will line out in the first 15 today. Buggy O'Meara from Kilruane was a part of the under 21 set-up that toppled Kerry to claim the Munster title last month.
It was fashionable after that momentous victory to claim Evans as some class of a miracle worker but, in his own eyes, he has done things the same as always and the formula is working. Over 20 years ago, he became player-manager of Knocknagoshel and took them swiftly from Division 5 to Division 2, missing out on promotion to Division 1 by a point. He had an instinctive gift of creating trust and making players want to play for him. The rest came from hard work.
All week people have been stopping him and asking if he thinks they can pull off the shock of the decade against Kerry today. He knows it is simply human nature to wonder at such things, but he doesn't think it is the right question. At heart Evans might well be one of football's great romantics but he isn't a dreamer and that critical distinction largely defines him.
"Jack O'Connor and myself would talk a lot," he says, "and we discussed playing a challenge game last year. I called it off because I knew we weren't ready for it. I'm not silly enough to be talking about beating Kerry. Look, we're playing Kerry in one of the finest stadiums in the country and it's a fantastic experience for our lads. They'll be fit and enthusiastic and hopefully they'll come on enough so that we can do well in the qualifiers. That's what I would say."
For Evans, the long-term is key. A while back the county board tried to appoint him as director of football but were knocked back by Croke Park. Sensibly, he refuses to offer a comment other than to applaud the board for their vision and for the faith they have shown. To most observers, it is obvious he is already doing the job in a voluntary capacity anyway. Creating a priceless legacy. Leaving things better than when he arrived.
"I keep saying it. We're two and a half years into a five-year plan. We're trying to get things right, get the schools and colleges going, streamline the whole thing. Time will tell if my ideas are right. I'd like fellas to ring me in two years' time and say, 'hey John, you said you'd do such and such a thing five years ago and now the excuses are over. What have you delivered?'"
Plenty enough already, most would think. He remembers another of his father's sayings. "If you start with nothing, you'll never go broke." Three years ago, Tipperary football was virtually bankrupt. Under Evans' steady hand, it is galloping determinedly towards solvency.