'Best is yet to come from Tipp' - Kearns
Tipperary 3-19 Louth 0-19 - Allianz NFL Division Three Final
After unexpectedly reaching last year's All-Ireland SFC semi-finals in Liam Kearns' first campaign in charge, it was thought that Tipperary might suffer a dose of second season syndrome and fail to back it up, but the signs suggest that 2017 will see them hit new heights.
Promotion to the league's second tier was already secured before their comprehensive defeat of Louth in Saturday's Division 3 final, but they continued their Croke Park love affair, with Kearns feeling they have developed a panel capable of competing on the periphery of the game's top table.
It's only when the Tralee native speaks of absentees - talents like Philip Austin, Ciaran McDonald, Jimmy Feehan, Ian Fahey and Jason Lonergan - that their new-found depth becomes evident, having added 17 new faces to the squad and blooded several youngsters throughout the league.
"We've had a very tough campaign," Kearns said. "We've lost two huge players in Peter Acheson (who he ruled out returning from Dubai in 2017) and Ciaran McDonald, who would be inspirational players and leaders and they didn't kick a ball in this campaign.
"To bring in a lot of young fellas, it's very pleasing to get the job done and winning above in Armagh was really the catalyst for it. That's when they showed their character and they fought so hard. It was important we progressed things after last year. People were looking to see could we go any further than that, so it was important that we backed it up today."
It was a familiar face in Conor Sweeney - who finished his spring with 4-38 (4-17 from play) - that came up trumps for the Premier men with another virtuoso attacking display, including two second-half goals, as he provided the perfect foil for All Star full-forward Michael Quinlivan.
And the talented left-footer believes last year's weaknesses are rectified.
"You saw last year, come the business end of the season, we suffered a bit against Mayo. We just didn't have the strength in depth. It's something we haven't had over the last few years and we paid a price, but we certainly have that this year and the bench is making an impact," Sweeney said.
Colin Kelly's Louth, who defeated Tipp in Thurles last month, shot out of the blocks. They hit three quick points and looked in command when leading 0-7 to 0-4 after 25 minutes, before coughing up 1-5 without reply as the Premier started piercing holes in their defence.
Try as they might, two points was the closest they could get, 1-12 to 0-13 after 41 minutes, before Tipp put on the afterburners yet again.
Kelly offered no excuses, saying his side "played really attractive football at times" but were undone by some schoolboy errors.
"Goals win games and Tipperary exploited us at the back. That's ultimately the difference, they were breaking us down pretty easy to get scores. We chased, we pushed, we tried as much as we could, but ultimately we couldn't break them down," he said.
It was a rare damp note in a hugely promising league campaign and Kelly feels the Wee County could make a serious mark in the coming years if they continue their upward curve.
"Ultimately it's about progression and getting more competitive as a county. Maybe three, four, five years down the line we can think about coming out here deep into the summer and performing at a higher level," he said.
With Anthony Williams, Pauric Smith and Tommy Durnin attacking from deep, Louth strode into an early advantage.
Their effective counter-attacking style caused Tipp problems, but once the Premier got their bearings they made it tell on the scoreboard late on in an entertaining opening half.
Sweeney hit two fine points before his weighted hand pass found the onrushing Liam Casey, who blasted into the Louth net and left five points between the sides, which they maintained until the break, 1-11 to 0-9.
Louth sharpshooter Ryan Burns was well marshalled throughout, but two quick-fire points (one free), followed by another from Durnin had them back within touching distance.
It was a case of deja vu, though, as Tipp surged clear with three points in as many minutes.
Jack Kennedy, Quinlivan (free) and Kevin O'Halloran settled Tipp before expert poacher Sweeney was on hand to finish to the net, after Bevan Duffy was dispossessed in front of goal following a brilliant block by Williams on Kevin O'Halloran, 2-15 to 0-14.
Louth kept battling but couldn't find a way past imperious Tipp full-back Paddy Codd and substitutes Liam McGrath (All-Ireland minor-winning captain in 2011) and Liam Boland extended their lead with the finishing line in sight.
With Louth committed to attack, Sweeney was left unmarked in front of goal and put the cherry on the Premier cake in the dying seconds with his second goal. It was an accomplished Tipp display, but Kearns left no doubt that bigger and better things are expected when the ground hardens.
"There's a lot of improvement in us, there's quite a few lads out there that will improve. We're going in the right direction and that's pleasing," he said.
"The championship is our main goal, we've eight weeks, we're going to use that well and we hope to be at our best or close to our best for that. It's only preparation for the championship and we hope to be a lot better than today."
Scorers - Tipperary: C Sweeney 2-5 (3f), L Casey 1-1, M Quinlivan (2f) and K O'Halloran (2f) 0-3 each, J Kennedy 0-2, A Campbell, R Kiely, J Keane, L Boland, L McGrath 0-1 each.
Louth: R Burns 0-5 (4f), T Durnin, J McEneaney (3f) and D Byrne (1f) 0-3 each, P Smith 0-2, D Maguire, E O'Connor, A McDonnell 0-1 each.
Tipperary: E Comerford 7; A Campbell 8, P Codd 8, W Connors 7; B Maher 7, R Kiely 8, S O'Connell 6; L Casey 8, J Kennedy 7; J Keane 7, K O'Halloran 7, B Fox 7; C Sweeney 8, M Quinlivan 7, E Moloney 6. Subs: G Hannigan 6 for Moloney (52), L Boland 7 for O'Halloran (61), C O'Shaughnessy 6 for Connors (64), A Moloney for Kennedy (67), L McGrath for Keane (71), J Hennessy for Quinlivan inj (76).
Louth: C Lynch 6; A Williams 7, P Reilly 5, P Rath 6; J Bingham 6, J Stewart 6, D Maguire 7; T Durnin 8, A McDonnell 6; D Byrne 7, P Smith 7, B Duffy 6; A Reid 5, E O'Connor 6, R Burns 6. Subs: K Murphy 6 for Reilly (half-time), R Moore 6 for Reid (45), J McEneaney 7 for O'Connor (48), G McSorley 6 for Burns (57), C McKeever 6 for Durnin (64), J Califf for Byrne (70)
Ref - A Nolan (Wicklow)