Sunday 25 February 2018

Comment: After watching Tipp's torturous years it was tough to keep a professional facade

Conor Sweeney of Tipperary celebrates with his girlfriend Shauna Hill after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Conor Sweeney of Tipperary celebrates with his girlfriend Shauna Hill after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Jackie Cahill

IT’S been a rollercoaster ride reporting on the fortunes of the Tipperary senior footballers since 1998.

My first assignment as a cub reporter back then was a Munster final in Thurles, as Kerry won by just a single point.

There have been some great days since. The Tommy Murphy Cup final at Croke Park in 2005 sticks out while gaining successive promotions from Divisions 4 to 2 under John Evans in 2008 and 2009 were other great highlights.

Tipp tumbled back down to the bottom tier quickly and operated in Division 3 this year, plodding through home games against Clare and Offaly at Sean Treacy Park in Tipperary town in desperate weather conditions.

With Semple Stadium struggling to cope with the elements this year, the county ground was off-limits to the footballers. So they made do with what they had, as they’ve always done. 

Then there was the 1-5 to 2-13 defeat against Kildare at the Clonmel Sportsfield, an afternoon that exposed many flaws.

To come from where they were then to a first All-Ireland SFC semi-final since 1935 is the stuff of dreams.

Manager Liam Kearns stared adversity in the face from the moment he took over from Peter Creedon last year.

The loss of Colin O’Riordan to AFL giants Sydney Swans was the first blow before Steven O’Brien and Seamus Kennedy chose the hurlers.

Early in the year, Kearns estimated that he was operating without 20 potential squad players for various reasons, as an unprecedented injury crisis bit hard.

Experienced campaigners Barry Grogan and Paddy Codd opted out but Kearns soldiered on, introducing new blood and watching intently as they adapted quickly to inter-county fare.

The League campaign began with a scrappy draw in Kilmallock against Limerick, another wet and windy day when spectators yearned for the hot air of their cars long before the final whistle blew.

That’s what it’s like following the Tipp footballers in the early months of the year. Cold hands, feet that feel like ice blocks, and muddy footwear as you head for home.

But it’s still so enjoyable, meeting and greeting the same faces on a weekly basis. I’ve seen them play in Ardfinnan, Clonmel, Tipp town, Semple Stadium, and further afield in numerous provincial venues.

I can recall that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when Cork snatched a late victory in the 2009 Munster U21 final. It was even worse in 2014 when the senior Rebels caught Tipp late when Peter Creedon’s team were on the cusp of an historic win at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Setback after setback and yet they kept coming back for more. Qualifier defeats against Down in 2012 and Galway two years ago were tough to take as one more win would have taken Tipp to Croke Park.

There was hope last year that Kerry could finally be slain but the Kingdom were too good in Thurles in a Munster semi-final.

And then, along came 2016, and 72 years of hurt at senior level against Cork was wiped away with that colossal provincial semi-final victory at Semple Stadium.

Down the home stretch, Cork came from nine points down to level but Tipp, somehow, engineered a couple of late chances from placed balls and Kevin O’Halloran, with that traction engine of a left boot, nailed them.

That afternoon brought me back to May 2011, when Tipp’s minors came from 11 points down to beat Kerry in a Munster semi-final at Semple Stadium. They went on to win the All-Ireland five years ago, beating a Dublin team featuring Eric Lowndes, John Small, Jack McCaffrey, Cormac Costello, Ciaran Kilkenny and Paul Mannion, now firmly-established senior players for the Sky Blues.

There was Tralee in 2010 when Tipp won a very first Munster U21 title, beating Kerry in their own back yard, and there was Thurles again last year when they repeated that feat against Cork.

Good days, bad days, you learn to roll with the punches as a Tipperary fan. The old saying is that sports journalists are fans with typewriters. That certainly applies in my case.

It can be difficult to contain your emotions and retain that professional façade on days like last Sunday, when Liam Kearns masterminded that victory over Galway at Croke Park.

And there they were at full-time, that loyal band of Tipp fans making their way from the Cusack Stand to the centre of the Hogan Stand via the Davin End.

Looking down from the press box, it was a remarkable sight. Tipp FM’s commentary team of Killian Whelan, Ian O’Connor and Conor O’Dwyer whooped and hollered. What’s rare is wonderful.

And so the journey continues. We’ll be back at Croke Park on August 21 to face Mayo or Tyrone. Who knows what will happen then but one thing’s for sure, they’ll put us through the wringer again.

When it’s Tipperary football, that’s just how it is. And we wouldn't have it any other way.

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