Exile at home on premier fields
Kerry native Evans keeps feet on ground despite overseeing a major revolution in Tipp football, writes Liam Kelly
WOULD you think a Kerryman could catch out a Kerryman? "No" is the answer to that -- from a Kerryman. Puzzled? Well, it's simple enough.
Mighty Kerry, the All-Ireland champions managed by Jack O'Connor from Dromid in the Kingdom, will open the defence of their crown by playing Tipperary in the first round of the Munster championship on Sunday, May 16.
Tipperary are managed by John Evans, a Kerry native-in-exile who has brought the Premier County to successive promotions from National League Division 4 and Division 3 in 2008 and 2009.
So, I put the question to Evans: In his wildest dreams, could he envisage Tipperary catching Kerry cold and producing a shock championship result?
"Hey -- remember you are talking to a Kerryman. If anyone was to think they could catch the Kerry team unawares, they would be very foolish.
"Even though the game is at Semple Stadium, it's simply going to be a big occasion for our lads.
"If we can learn something from the game and go on to play in the qualifiers, then that's what we would expect to get out of it," said Evans.
For a character who feels that any team manager has to have a bit of madness in him to do the job, that's a very level-headed assessment -- or is it a case of a 'cute Kerry hoor' doing a double-bluff?
"No, I'm ambitious, but also a very practical guy," said Evans. "Remember, we were drawn from what lads down here are calling 'the Bowl of Hell'.
"There's ourselves, Kerry, and Cork in our side of the draw. That's the All-Ireland champions, the Munster champions, and ourselves, a Division 2 team, all drawn together.
"Limerick, Clare and Waterford, all Division 4 teams, are in the other side of the draw, so one of those counties will get to a Munster final.
"Overall, it will be very hard to progress from our championship draw, but perhaps we could get a stroke of luck in the qualifiers and go on from there.
"We still have a very young team. Our average age last year was 20.5, so they are still developing as a team."
Evans is a colourful character with plenty to say for himself, as is evident by his quip on the frustrations of the current icy weather and its effect on training and playing.
"We're like a eunuch in a harem -- he knows what to do, he wants to do it ... but he can't do a thing about it.
"You can't get out on a field and there's no football being played. It's not just John Evans going on about it. Every county is in the same boat.
"On Sunday last we turned up for our McGrath Cup game with University of Limerick, but the officials looked at the pitch and said there was no hope of the game going ahead. But there was a small portion of the field that was accessible on the left hand side of the field, so we had a little run out.
"I don't know if you would even call what we did a training session. It was just ball handling and no contact.
"All in all it was a very handy training session for the boys," he said -- implying that when the thaw sets in the Tipp players won't be getting it so handy!
Evans might be good with the jokes, but as a judge of football and footballers there's a depth to him that has paid off handsomely for Tipperary.
The Killorglin man, who retired from the Garda Siochana last year, knew what he wanted when he arrived to take over Tipperary two years ago.
"When I first came down it was the style of football I went for that was my priority.
"I was no longer going for big, strong players. I wanted a versatile, flexible, faster player and I reaped good rewards with that style.
"We had ambitious, committed lads who bought into that policy, and who liked it. We got one or two breaks early in the first year and won a few matches.
"When the results started coming, the young lads perked up. They saw what they were doing was worthwhile, and when the promotion came from Division 4, the whole county went mad.
"They were saying 'we've got out of the darkest hole we were ever in -- for 27 years' and after that I started looking for more talent and was pleasantly shocked to find there was even more talent there.
"In that second year I got another eight to 10 guys into the panel, and there was a big change in the team," he said.
The addition of that number of players who were able to contribute to the squad shows the value of the winning habit and the knock-on effect of motivating players who might otherwise have been lost to the cause.
"There were lads who thought football was a dead duck in Tipperary, but promotion to Division 3 gave them a new impetus and they were now really backing a team that was after winning and achieving something brilliant," said Evans.
Of course, Division 4 promotion was great, but after their first Division 3 game -- a defeat by a six-point margin to Down in Thurles -- there was a question mark as to how the squad would react to this set-back in the higher level of football.
As it transpired, Evans need not have worried. In fact, he was delighted with the players' attitude and response to the defeat.
"After that first game against Down, the young lads were fired up. They were roaring that they wanted to win the Division," he said.
Tipp lost only one more game -- to Longford -- and finished runners-up to Down. Both counties finished on 10 points each, and only points scored separated them.
The icing on the cake came when they met Down again, this time in the Division 3 final at Pearse Park, Longford on April 25, and beat them.
"To win the league on national television, and for the commentators to be saying it was one of the best games of the season was great.
"It was great to see our young fellas go toe-to-toe with Down, a recognised football power, and beat them.
"I was extremely proud of our lads, but one of the great things I found in Tipperary is that the county's sporting history rubbed off on the footballers.
"Unlike some other counties I could name, there's a feeling within them that they can win titles.
"I believe that's something that's handed down the generations through Tipperary sporting families and you can't underestimate that bit of belief that they expect to be successful," he said.
The win over Down brought a nice response from former Kerry great Paidi O Se, himself a winning All-Ireland manager with the Kingdom.
"Paidi wrote me a letter, and in it he said I was the first Kerry manager to beat a Down team in a final. That was something different, albeit that I did it with Tipperary," said Evans.
Evans admits his players achieved more than he might have expected, but when it came to the championship, he found fellow Kerry native Mickey Ned O'Sullivan from Kenmare getting the better of Tipperary.
Mickey Ned's Limerick came to Thurles and ground out a victory by two points, despite a stirring fight back by the home team.
In round one of the qualifiers, Tipp ousted Louth by a point -- 2-10 to 1-12 -- before coming a cropper to Sligo in round two, this time losing by just a point.
These were narrow margins of defeat to Limerick and Sligo, even though the winning teams gave Cork and Kerry respectively a serious fright in later stages of the competition.
"Yes, beaten by a point in the play-offs by Sligo, and by two against Limerick. Part of that I would say comes down to the old saying 'you can't have butter on both sides of your bread.'
"By that I mean that you can't expect a young, light, ambitious team with such a young average age to be as strong as a more experienced team when it comes to the championship.
"They were physically bullied and pushed out of it in the first half against Limerick and Sligo, and each time they were eight or nine points down, but they roared back into it in the second half.
"To come from behind the way they did in those matches showed spirit, even though they were young, light, and inexperienced," said Evans.
The 2010 campaign now looms, and once the thaw sets in and football gets going properly, Evans knows that big challenges lie ahead.
"I'm just hoping that the team will make a big drive in Division 2 and that we get some impetus that gives as a fighting chance of staying in the Division. We won't even consider promotion. We don't have the panel of players or the strength in depth or the conveyor belt of players to set that kind of target.
"It would be great if we keep on improving, but practically speaking, it would be a hell of an achievement to stay up this year," said Evans.
The McGrath Cup will be used for experimenting and sifting through players before he settles on a squad for the League, but if it's any consolation for the Tipp players, there won't be any early-morning training sessions.
"I'm very practical guy regarding training. Get in three good training sessions a week and a game, and use the ball as much as possible to work hard on skill, skill, and more skills.
"That's my belief about training. I'm not advising any other county or manager how to do their job, but obviously I'm doing something right," said Evans with a roguish smile.