Saturday 24 February 2018

Eoin Liston: No sign of second-season syndrome as canny Kearns keeps Tipp floating under football’s radar


Tipperary manager Liam Kearns. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Liam Kearns. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

When employed by the Munster Council in the 1980s to help promote football in some of the weaker counties in the province, I visited many places in Tipperary where they would gladly burst a football if they came across one.

They would refer to their sporting footwear as hurling boots, never football boots, and playing football was almost viewed as a sin in a small-ball county. Time is a great healer and this is no longer the case but Liam Kearns' achievements with the Premier footballers still deserve special recognition.

It's one thing attaining success when you have everyone available to you, like Jim Gavin with Dublin or Eamonn Fitzmaurice in Kerry, but Kearns' feats are even more impressive because he's swimming against the tide.

Two of his best players are plying their trade with the hurlers - Steven O'Brien and Seamus Kennedy - while last year's captain Peter Acheson is living in Dubai and Colin O'Riordan, the spiritual leader of this current crop, is chasing AFL success Down Under.

To dine at football's top table, Kearns needs that calibre of player available to him but he's doing a remarkable job in their absence when crippling injuries to Ciarán McDonald and Michael Quinlivan are also factored into the equation, not to mention the suspension of influential goalkeeper Evan Comerford.

This should have conspired against him, leading to the inevitable second-season syndrome after last year's epic run to the All-Ireland semi-finals but he's somehow managed to keep the show on the road.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Last Saturday's qualifier comeback defeat of Cavan was an act of sheer defiance but it was no surprise as Kearns has always gone about his business with little or no fanfare while keeping one common thread.

Regardless of where he spreads the gospel he always gets the best out of his teams and that's all any manager can do. If you were judging whether he maximises the raw material that he has available to him then the answer would be a resounding yes.

He's old school and quite set in his ways with his Garda background demanding discipline from his troops but he knows the game inside out, he's been there himself from his days with Kerry and players respond to that, they respect him.

As a dynamic Austin Stacks midfielder trying to break onto the Kerry scene in the golden era of the mid '80s, he never lacked drive or motivation but he had the misfortune of competing with Jack O'Shea and Ambrose O'Donovan in that sector.

Three into two doesn't go but he always turned up the pressure and along with my brother Sean, he was regularly on the 'B' team in ferocious training games doing whatever he could to displace them. That pair were untouchable at the time, however.

He has taken all before him since turning his hand to coaching and was bitterly unlucky not to get one over on the Kingdom when at the helm in Limerick. Only for Darragh Ó Sé plucking a few high balls above the crossbar at the death, they had us beaten in the drawn 2004 Munster final.

Linking up as a coach with another Kerry native John Evans as Roscommon secured promotion to Division 1 in 2015 added to a glowing CV before the Premier call came and further success followed.

You can't deny what they did last year, it was a remarkable achievement and with Division 3 silverware in the bag this spring, there's no doubt that they've pushed on against all odds. They got a big scalp last year with Galway and they're capable of getting another one this summer.

On their day they could catch a big fish but they're in a tier just below the Dublins and Kerrys.

Saturday's Round 3 Qualifiers opponents Armagh are one of the teams in that tier but unlike his opposite number Kieran McGeeney, Kearns faces much less public scrutiny and floats under the radar. He goes about his business quietly and efficiently and he has this ambitious Tipp bunch operating at the peak of their powers. With Quinlivan and Philip Austin returning to fitness, they may follow up April's smash-and-grab league win and raid the Orchard once more. Their rapid rise is a credit to the parts of Tipp which stayed loyal to promoting the big ball and kept fighting to keep football alive. They have succeeded, the county is going in the right direction with a trusted lieutenant steering the ship.

The meeting of Dublin and Kildare is the first Leinster final I've looked forward to in years but realistic success for the Lilies is being in with a shout going down the final stretch as a win is simply out of the question. Kildare are going in the right direction but Sunday is too soon.

Fitness is not an issue but defensively there is still major concern with Kerry blitzing them for seven goals two years ago so it'll be interesting to see how Cian O'Neill approaches the game tactically and whether major improvements have been implemented from last year.

There's no hiding place in Croke Park, any weakness is exploited there. If you're lacking somewhere in the backline no one else can cover for you and that is the main worry as Dublin will have so many different tactics prepared to exploit Kildare.

I'm not sure if the Dubs can lay down a much better marker than their 31-point drubbing of Westmeath but with people floating the idea of an upset, the Dubs will want to quickly nip it in the bud. When questions are raised Gavin's men always respond with definitive answers.


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