Deadly duo are leading superb Tipp goal rush
When wing-back Bill Maher bolted forward to sidestep the Louth defence and rifle home Tipperary's first goal against Louth in their Allianz Division 2 meeting in Thurles last Sunday, it was a landmark 50th goal since Liam Kearns took over as manager at the end of 2016.
Later on, Michael Quinlivan would add a second goal to accelerate Tipperary's push for Division 1 status which quickens again with this weekend's visit to Newry to play Down, a match that if they win will potentially set them up for a last-round head-to-head with Cavan should the Breffni men fail beat Roscommon on Sunday.
Goals have been the lifeblood of Kearns's Tipperary teams. And in Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney they have the main arteries.
In 29 league and championship matches under the present management since the beginning of 2016 Tipp have only failed to score a goal in three, against Clare in this year's league, Louth in last year's league and Mayo in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final.
They are currently the most prolific goalscorers in all four divisions with 10, following two seasons in Division 3 when they were also among the highest.
Only Armagh (Div 3) with 15 and Westmeath (Div 4) with 13 scored more than their tally of 12 last year while in 2016, when they were again a Division 3 team, their 12-goal haul was only bettered by Derry (Div 2) on 13.
Invariably, the twin attacking threat of Sweeney and Quinlivan have led that goal rush. In the 26 games where Tipperary have found the net at least once on Kearns's watch, one or other of this deadly duo has scored a goal in 17.
In this year's Division 2 campaign their only goal blank came against Clare when Quinlivan was forced off with injury after 24 minutes. Otherwise, the Clonmel man has been good for a goal a game, striking against Louth, Meath, Roscommon and Cork.
Between them they have scored 27 (Quinlivan 15, Sweeney 12) goals under the present management in those 29 matches.
It's been more than a year (11 games) since Tipperary played a game where they scored a goal or goals and Quinlivan or Sweeney weren't on the mark. Two of their three goalless games referenced earlier fell in this period.
But the goals have not just been about Quinlivan and Sweeney, half-back has also been a real source. Robbie Kiely (four), Bill Maher (two) and Jimmy Feehan (two) have been prolific in that 29-game period with Maher driving forward for two in his last two games.
The county's two-time All-Star Declan Browne, one of the best forwards of his generation, feels their approach is paying dividends.
"It's great for Tipp football, you're not going out where it's a case of 'defend, defend, defend, hold on to something and see can we get a sucker punch to win a match'. They're going out to win games from the front, it's good to watch.
"They have a system, it suits them, they all buy into it and they're confident. It has been coming and coming a while," he said of their progression.
"I'm glad it didn't finish with Mayo in 2016. We've driven on. Obviously, we rode our luck against Armagh (last round of Division 3 when they struck late to earn promotion). We're a top-12 team if not a top-10 team," he figured.
Browne doesn't see telepathy in that Sweeney-Quinlivan axis, rather two skilled individuals well able to go it alone.
"It's just happening, they're big men. In my time you had a certain type of ball you had to get in to win it, but you can horse it in any way to these lads, in front, up high, behind. They will fancy themselves winning any ball coming into them. Other forwards need 60/40 ball to do damage.
"The height factor is huge too but they're two incredibly skilful forwards with Liam McGrath as well, the 2011 All-Ireland minor captain. We have a potent inside-forward line now."
Browne reserves particular praise for Sweeney who, he says, has transformed his game over the last three to four years.
"Conor would himself admit four or five years ago he was probably struggling to make the team. It's well documented what Michael Quinlivan is about but what Conor has done over the last three years is phenomenal. He's changed his whole mindset and attitude. He's definitely on a par (with Quinlivan), unlucky not to win an All-Star two years ago."
Wins over Meath and Louth have helped them to recover momentum after losing a lead to Roscommon and then getting badly caught up in Ennis.
It has taken them to within sight of top-flight football and that has sparked its own debate in the county with even Kearns suggesting this week that it was never the biggest thing on their minds at the outset and noting the fate of Roscommon last year and Kildare's current struggles in Division 1 where football is a lot more challenging and goals don't flow like they do in the other divisions.
"People down here don't want it to happen, maybe feel it's too early. I think it's rubbish," said Browne.
"You'll have good teams coming down and coming up, it's not going to be easy next year in Division 2. Sunday is massive against Down.
"If we got to Division 1, what's the worst thing that could happen? You could come back down to Division 2. I would imagine those lads would only love a crack at defences in Division 1."
They've made this advance without two of their best players in recent years, Peter Acheson who was a real driver in 2016 before emigrating to Dubai and Colin O'Riordan who is in his third year on the books of AFL club Sydney Swans.
They're doing just fine without them but the wonder must be just how far they could go if they had every available resource.
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