Wednesday 21 February 2018

'I'd imagine it's hard for teams to analyse us as we often don't know what we are doing ourselves'

George Hannigan feels Tipp's football success is long overdue, despite the odds facing them

Ciarán McDonald, left, and George Hannigan of Tipperary
Ciarán McDonald, left, and George Hannigan of Tipperary
‘I’d imagine it’s hard for teams to analyse us as we often don’t know what we’re going to do ourselves’. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

There aren't too many All-Ireland semi-finalists who could travel to Croke Park on a scouting mission of their last-four opponents and go completely unrecognised, but as George Hannigan says himself, he's "usually watching games on television with his feet up at this time of the year".

Hannigan was a small fish in the GAA's biggest pond two weeks ago but he has become accustomed to it as a Tipperary footballer this summer. A host of quality players opting out of Liam Kearns's squad gave Tipp the look of a beaten docket but inside the camp, they never stopped believing.

George Hannigan during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final between Waterford and Tipperary. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
George Hannigan during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final between Waterford and Tipperary. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

They have thrived on their underdog status, and a remarkable string of performances secured an unlikely semi-final berth, their first in 81 years. From humble beginnings in Fraher Field on the last Sunday in May, Tipp are now 70 minutes away from the biggest Sunday in the GAA calendar.

Read more: Tomás Ó Sé: Tipp footballers are born fighting the odds - and that might be their greatest strength

After just 45 minutes of league action due to a long-standing groin injury, Hannigan was nursed back to health by former Ireland rugby international Ian Dowling. The 28-year-old was parachuted into his first start of the year against Waterford and hasn't looked back, with his return to fitness sparking a change in fortunes.

Tipp have been a breath of fresh air - the GAA success story of 2016 - setting the championship alight since stunning Cork two months ago. And in a game regularly strait-jacketed by stifling tactics, defensive systems and negativity, their ability to play with a rare freedom of expression is almost regarded as one of the secrets of Fatima.

Read more: Billy Keane: Tipp have sown seeds for a fairytale, but Mayo have waited so long for their golden harvest

But for the Shannon Rovers midfielder, their brand of Total Football is nothing new or revolutionary. "I guess it was always the way we played. Anyone who has been following us for the last few years would know that's the way we play. There is a certain amount of freedom and we do play off the cuff a good bit," he says.

"I'd imagine it is hard for teams to analyse us as we often don't know what we are going to do ourselves on the ball. There were more people watching and took notice, but if you were at our games for the last few years, we have been playing that way for a long time and it's not a new thing for us.

George Hannigan during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final between Waterford and Tipperary. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

George Hannigan in action for Tipp

"We just performed on a bigger stage on tv and people took notice of us. We played that way against Cork as well and got a win. There wasn't a word said about it as it wasn't on tv and there wasn't much highlights on The Sunday Game.

"The one thing I have noticed is that a lot of people are referring to our style of play against Galway. Those who may not have a great knowledge of football or how it is played, they just appreciated the way we approached the game."

Breaking the glass ceiling and qualifying for the Munster decider via a monumental championship win over the Rebels set about a chain of events which has allowed Tipp to avoid the hardships of early qualifier games, and while their route to GAA headquarters was not through the front door, it was at least left on the latch.

"For numerous years we have been playing really good stuff but unfortunately we haven't been able to get over Kerry yet. If they weren't in our way, this moment would have come a lot earlier because once you play a Munster quarter or semi-final and you don't get over the likes of Kerry, it is a long road back," Hannigan says.

"This year getting to a Munster final was a massive advantage as you are one game away from a quarter-final. I have always felt we were capable of getting to a quarter-final and winning quarter-finals, but if you don't get to your provincial final it's a long road to get there.

"I don't care how good a team you are, you can't go playing three or four weeks in a row at a high standard and not get caught out along the line. Getting to a provincial final is a big thing and if we had done that two or three years earlier we would have been having this conversation then."

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Tipperary players celebrate their victory over Galway Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Tipp celebrate win over Galway

Extraordinary post-match scenes followed their spectacular defeat of Galway as streams of faithful Premier supporters made their way across the Davin Stand to meet their footballing heroes at the front of the Hogan Stand, poignantly named after Tipp's Michael Hogan, the only player killed on Bloody Sunday in Croke Park during the 1920 All-Ireland final.

One of the most iconic moments in GAA history was remembered last month as hundreds of Tipp diehards openly wept with joy at what they had just witnessed, a display of raw passion and skill by a band of brothers who continuously overcome what seem like insurmountable odds.

"There's only a small band there," reflected Kearns afterwards. "We could do with a bigger band, Tipperary is a big county and I hope the players will get the support they deserve in the semi-final, but we're delighted to share it with the ones who are here - they're the loyal supporters, they know them all by name and I'm just delighted they've got a day in the sun."

Hannigan, a primary school teacher in Nenagh CBS, has noticed a swell in support and after soldiering since 2006 with Tipp, it's due reward for their efforts. An accomplished hurler - he subdued current Hurler of the Year TJ Reid in the 2005 All-Ireland Colleges final in St Flannan's last Dr Croke Cup success - Hannigan could easily have been involved with Michael Ryan's squad last Sunday had his career not taken a different direction.

His father Joe, who narrowly missed out on a Dáil seat when running as an Independent in this year's general election, comes from hurling stock and it was expected that George would focus on the small ball. "But one day he comes back to the club and he says 'Jaysus Daddy, I'm going to under 16 trials for Tipperary football' and I said to him 'what are going to that for?'," Joe said in 2014.

"But I brought him on and there was a lad up the road from us at it and he said he'd bring George home, so on I went. George came home and said 'I'm on the team'. The following year he's on the team again and playing with St Flannan's.

"Then he comes home and says that he has met the minor manager, Peter Creedon, and he wants him to commit to Tipperary football so I asked 'what about the hurling?' and he said he'd try to do both. Shortly afterwards he came home to announce that Creedon had made him captain."

Despite hailing from North Tipp, which is the weakest footballing area in the county, Joe has followed his son's love of the big ball and become immersed in football. He's been chairman of Tipperary's football board for the past four years and describes Tipp's "hidden football tradition" with four All-Ireland titles, pointing out how those embers just needed to be rekindled.

A training weekend in the blistering May heat of Cratloe in Clare, which players and management remember as more like the Costa del Sol, stoked the Tipperary fire and they now bid to succeed where other surprise semi-finalists like Fermanagh (2004) and Wexford (2008) couldn't and book a decider date with either Dublin or Kerry.

In their way is a Mayo side which they haven't locked horns with at any level coming up through the ranks, but with six successive appearances in the penultimate round, and having watched them up close and personal, the flame-haired Hannigan knows exactly what's facing them after "Mayo took Tyrone on at their own game and had the better skill-set to win out in the end".

For Tipp, this is another step in the right direction, another milestone reached, and after taking All-Ireland minor honours in 2011 and reaching the under 21 All-Ireland decider in 2015, a Munster senior crown is firmly on their radar.

"Definitely. Something has got to give eventually," Hannigan says. "We have so many guys who are good footballers. We have so many teams coming up and are regularly beating Cork and Kerry in underage competitions so there is no reason why we can't win a Munster Championship.

"Getting to a Munster final this year means you are seeded for a semi-final next year which is another big advantage. All these things help. It isn't just going to happen. It's going to need hard work and to perform on the big day but I have no doubt we will win a Munster final."

But for now another big day concerns them as a glorious opportunity stares them in the face. And after watching from afar for long enough, Tipp will savour today's challenge and hope to get the job done with their usual flair.

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