In late October, Michael Quinlivan stepped off the pitch in Carrick-on-Shannon after a win against Leitrim had secured Tipperary's Division 3 status. By then he might have been in South America seeing places a great deal more exotic than Leitrim's county town. But when you've committed to Tipperary you know the deal.
Tipperary footballer doesn't have to sweep dressing-room floors to understand humility. It is an essential part of the living experience. Last year they were relegated to Division 3 and the championship offered no salvation. Limerick scored a first win in the province in seven years at their expense, and the journey ended in the qualifiers in Newry, with defeat to Down finishing Liam Kearns' four-year term as manager.
For Quinlivan the ending had deeper significance due to his plans to take a year out to travel. On St Stephen's Day he headed off on a worldwide trip with his girlfriend. They were in Sydney for New Year's Eve. From there they travelled on to New Zealand before experiencing Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. And then they had to make the decision to come home.
It has you wondering if what followed was written in the stars. Quinlivan played such an instrumental part in Tipp's famous win over Cork two weeks ago to make it virtually inconceivable that it would have happened in his absence. Liam Casey had also decided to travel. Colin O'Riordan had been away for some time. Instead of Tipp mourning the loss of its wild geese, they all came home.
"We thought we might ride it out over in Southeast Asia for a while," says Quinlivan, recalling the global spread of Covid-19, "but after about three or four days when the situation kind of started to change we had to get home and thankfully we got back on the last transit flight through the UAE, back into Dublin, so we were quite lucky in that regard."
Even though the 2019 season was their most disappointing since he won his All Star four years ago, and his own performances were restricted by injury, he says the question of travelling for an extended period had already been settled. "I probably made the decision 18 months or two years before that. I kind of worked towards the goal that we would go away at Christmas. I decided to go just for the full year and just decided that was it."
For his club and county, the loss of a player of Quinlivan's calibre was a devastating blow. He has been part of indelible and folkloric moments for both, from his spectacular winning goal in the final moments to win the 2015 Munster club final for Clonmel Commercials against Nemo, to the hat-trick and last-ditch third goal that floored Armagh and earned Tipp promotion to Division 2 in 2017. His early goal set them on their way to beating Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2016.
Quinlivan was brought into the senior team for the league in 2012, the year after the county seized its first All-Ireland minor football title since 1934, a sensational win against a Dublin side laced with talent and saddled with enormous expectation. It hasn't been a pauper's existence since - an All-Ireland senior semi-final appearance, an All Star, a Munster club football medal, all rarities in the history of Tipperary football, let alone one player's career.
But his latest and probably most prized medal is one that came against the head. His former minor manager, David Power, was barely in the door as Kearns' successor when he learned of Quinlivan's intention to take a year out. "David said you get one shot at life basically, if it's something that you really want to do, go and do it and we'll be here when you get back," he recalls of their conversation. It was a tough decision to arrive at. Football is too deeply ingrained for it not to be. His father, Martin, played in goal for Commercials, and Tipperary in the 1990s, and also had a spell in the League of Ireland with Waterford United. More recently, he was a selector when Commercials won the last two county titles and the Munster club five years ago, the only Tipp club to achieve the distinction.
"Every time I rang home my dad was able to give me a full run down on who had played well the weekend before," he says of the months he was away from home. "He still goes to every single one of the games. And it makes you appreciate it, like, you miss seeing your friends three times a week. That is probably the biggest thing. A lot of us, in that Tipperary football panel especially, grew up together, there's a hell of a lot of us from Clonmel on it, and you know, even the surrounding areas, would have gone to school together as well."
While abroad, he met Cavan footballer Conor Moynagh who is now living in New Zealand. By a curious twist, Moynagh's county won Ulster the same day that Tipp conquered Munster. "Thank God I was around," says Quinlivan, admitting his good fortune. "I know you would have gained a lot of life experience but this will probably go down as, hopefully not the pinnacle of my career, but it'll certainly be right up there."
Quinlivan was one of six Commercials players on the county minor squad in 2011 and from that All-Ireland win, his county career had a gradual and promising elevation to the point where Tipp stood within a game of reaching an All-Ireland senior final in 2016. Then the progress stalled. They won just two championship matches, against Waterford and Cavan, in the following three seasons and were relegated from Division 2 in the league. "I never felt that was going to be it," he says of 2016, "that that was the mountain, and we were coming down the other side."
But you needed breaks, too. They were undermined by injuries the next year. A last-minute goal by Cork was a shattering blow, when losing a Munster semi-final, having earlier won promotion from Division 3 in the league. "We obviously lost some massive players like Peter (Acheson), especially Peter, Ciarán McDonald, that's losing generational players. They don't come along too often. Then we had a couple more retirements, George (Hannigan) went. This is probably a new team now again, while there are a lot of us still involved, I think most of us were quite young in 2016. And it takes a little bit of time to gel. Things hadn't been going brilliantly maybe for the last 18 months, but when we saw the draw - and there's no point shying away from it - you do see an opportunity to get to a Munster final. Then things just started to fall into place. We started winning games, and you take confidence from that. I don't know when the last time was we won three or four games in a row, probably four years ago."
Even with a favourable Munster draw, their current resurgence was well camouflaged. In their preceding two league campaigns they'd won just four games out of 14. They had no win in the championship last year; the last time that had happened was in 2013. A week after their laboured win over Leitrim in late October, they faced Clare. A good start laid the platform for a surprise victory and they were hanging by a thread against Limerick in the semi-final when Conor Sweeney produced a stunning score from the sideline, a free struck with the outside of the boot - with the left and from the left - that sent the game to extra time. Quinlivan is reminded that he had offered to take it.
"Conor is too experienced to be making mistakes like that," he smiles. "Jack (Kennedy) was off the field and funny enough I haven't taken a free for club or county since he came along because he is so good, so I leave them to him. I don't know what I was thinking to be honest. Fair enough if it was level and you're thinking about being the hero. I was taking on a kick that nobody wanted and thankfully Conor just told me that it was alright, but what a kick. Oh my God! Given the pressure he was under and from where it was. He has been incredible for us all year and an incredible servant for the past number of years for Tipperary. I am just really, really happy that he got to lift it as well because he epitomises all that is good about our team and the players."
And from that uncertain beginning they produced a performance of stirring courage to hoist the first Tipp flag on the Munster summit for 85 years. Having the final a day after the centenary of Bloody Sunday seemed to inspire rather than hinder. "All week we had tried to kind of, not play down the significance of it, but try to just focus on the game and focus on what we had to do in the game," says Quinlivan. "But like, I watched the commemoration and was just blown away by, you know, playing football for Tipperary goes far beyond even our generation or the games that we play in, there's massive history there that people now understand in much greater detail thanks to the work of some brilliant people, Michael Foley to name one definitely.
"And it does, I think, when you walk into the dressing room and you notice it's not the blue and gold jersey standing there looking back at you, that it's a jersey that carries huge significance throughout the GAA, it does give you an extra bit of motivation. I think we really did come out of the traps early and maybe that was a massive deciding factor because we've started slowly maybe in a good number of our games other than that. While for the team we were trying to play it down to focus on our job, I think personally it did weigh. I'm massively proud that I got to play in the match and I think us performing like we did was the best commemoration we could have given."
The Commercials chairman Derek Williams feels that Quinlivan's form is reaching the standard of four years ago, when he became the only football All Star winner from Tipp after Declan Browne. "He is coming back to that level again," says Williams. "The way he performed the last day was every bit as good as '16; he was kicking points for fun."
Against Cork, Quinlivan was assured and brave, nailing four points from play, one in the first half an inspirational score hit with a slice from distance at a challenging angle to the right.
It brings them to Mayo today. Quinlivan spins back down memory lane to the game with Mayo in Croke Park in 2016. "There are a few things that come to mind. We were really shown what it meant when a Division 1 team ups the tempo. They got a goal against us. We were attacking the Hill 16 end, they turned it over, Keith Higgins went nearly the full length of the pitch and they buried it. Suddenly they tacked on three, four, five points, we were not only reeling from the goal but we were suddenly four or five points down after starting well. We clawed it back quite well, but obviously Robbie's (Kiely) black card in the first half - he was having a massive game, a massive year - so he was a huge loss. But we clawed it back to maybe a point, I think there was a Hawk-Eye point that would have brought us level, but it didn't go over. And I'd say four or five minutes later the goal happened.
"All in all I felt we competed, but we probably just lacked that little bit extra to close out the game. We gave it everything we had. Funnily enough it was similar when we played them in the qualifiers in Thurles two years later. While we competed well, it still ended up in an eight-point loss. We've a lot of learnings to take from the two of those (games) and hopefully we can apply them and have a go."
Whatever happens they have left a permanent mark on the championship and wider football history. One of the GAA's longest famines has ended.
"The thing about playing football for Tipperary is that you probably know everyone that follows the team on a personal basis," he says. "You see them on the pitch after every single game. There are people who kept the light on for the footballers for a long number of years and even in my own club I had a card during the week from John McNamara, who would have pretty much kept Clonmel Commercials going on his own. His son Joe dropped up a card to the house. It is that sort of stuff . . . I would have loved them to be there (at the match) and to see how much it meant to us and I'm sure it would have meant a hell of a lot to them.
"Petey Savage, my old friend, he will be turning 80 and I'm glad we were able to give him a bit of a birthday present and that he might enjoy it . . . Everybody, especially the Friends of Tipperary Football who did so much for so long . . ."
The greatest year of his football career has turned out to be the one he least expected.