Sunday 25 February 2018

A year in the life . . .

12 months on from their epic All-Ireland semi-final showdown and with new managers at the helm, Martin Breheny analyses what else has changed for Galway and Tipperary as they prepare to renew rivalry once again tomorrow at Croke Park

Galway's Shane Maloney scores the winning point in the dying minutes of the All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Tipperary at Croke Park last August. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway's Shane Maloney scores the winning point in the dying minutes of the All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Tipperary at Croke Park last August. Photo: Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile Newsdesk Newsdesk

Even before the excitement from a tumultuous contest in last year's All-Ireland semi-final had subsided, Eamon O'Shea summed it up perfectly in the Croke Park interview room.

Having described top-level sport as "a beautiful but brutal thing - both at the same time", he said he told the Tipperary players after the narrow defeat by Galway that they had been defeated, not beaten.

"You can't wallow in this. You can be bitterly disappointed, but the story is Galway today. Fair play to them," he said.

He then predicted that "a better manager will come in (to Tipperary) and get that point or two", before concluding with the simplest but most valid assessment of the afternoon's proceedings.

"These days are all about the winners. The winners go on and the losers go home. That's it," said O'Shea.

And so it was. His term as Tipperary manager had finished, but there would be no vacuum.

Michael Ryan, who together with Paudie O'Neill had been O'Shea's trusted aides for two seasons, was ready to step up, arising from an agreement put in place the previous October.

So even as Ryan left Croke Park that evening, he was already wondering if Tipperary would be back for an All-Ireland semi-final a year later. They are.

Down the corridor, Galway were enjoying a triumphant whirl as they looked ahead to another clash with Kilkenny.

The wait for the final passed quickly; Galway tried and failed, losing by four points after leading by three at half-time.

In the same press room where O'Shea predicted that a new manager would find that extra point or two required to take Tipperary to the next level, Galway manager Anthony Cunningham spoke even more confidently about the maroon-and-white future.

"It is within our grasp to win the All-Ireland. We are within inches of it. It's how we react now," he reasoned.

"It is something we have already spoken about in the dressing-room. We have got to work harder and get better but with the amount of players we have, it is definitely within our grasp. I would be very surprised if we don't kick on.

"I have no doubt that these players will work hard and they will get there. We're just hoping that it will be sooner rather than later."

Even as he left the press room, there was a sense that plans were already formulating in his head to get Galway back to Croke Park, not just in August 2016 but into September too.

Shortly afterwards, other plans fermented elsewhere, with the players revolting against their manager.

Eleven months on, Galway are returning but Cunningham isn't, having been removed by the squad he eulogised after the All-Ireland.

The brutal side of sport alluded to by O'Shea had taken another casualty, albeit in an off-the-pitch coup in Cunningham's case.

So when Galway and Tipperary arrive in Croke Park tomorrow, the circumstances for both will have changed quite a bit from last year.

In management terms, it's Ryan, Tipp's anointed one for almost two years, versus Micheál Donoghue, the man brought in as Cunningham's replacement a few days before Christmas.

In playing terms, the core of the squads is largely the same, although both have made some changes in line with the natural evolution that takes place everywhere.

And then there's the pressure factor, which can't be quantified but which is very definitely in the background.

New managers are usually allowed some leeway in their first season but not in the case of Ryan or Donoghue, since they took over in counties with a real chance of taking the All-Ireland. Winning it is the only achievement that will be recognised.

Starting point

So who was second behind Kilkenny last year? With only a point between Galway and Tipperary, it was the closest of marginals.

Tipp were Munster champions but, unlike Galway, they didn't get to test themselves against Kilkenny, the undisputed No 1.

Both started 2016 under new managers, but in Ryan's case he knew all the Tipperary players very well, having worked with all of them over the previous two seasons and many of them in the 2010 All-Ireland winning season.

So when he began planning for this year, he had a clear vision of how the players would fit into the adjusted structure.

Lar Corbett (35), Shane McGrath (31), Conor O'Mahony (31) and James Woodlock (29) all retired, presumably believing that their chances would be limited in a changed environment.

Read More: Balance swings towards Tipp in another high-scoring shoot-out

Donoghue knew the players too - the Tipp ones that is - having been part of O'Shea's wider back-up last year. He was familiar with the Galway squad too, but only as an outside observer.

Getting to know them as individuals would have to be done quickly. Indeed, he referred to that process quite a few times during the Allianz League campaign where Galway were scrutinised more closely than usual because of the heave against Cunningham

Spring tests

They finished with Galway heading for 1B and Tipperary losing to Clare in the league quarter-final.

Relegation is the ugliest word in any league firmament, complete with its basement material stigma after a lengthy season. Of course it's nothing like that in hurling where the league is no more than a glorified blitz, featuring five group games. Tipperary took five of a possible 10 points, one more than Galway, leaving Donoghue's men facing a relegation play-off, which they lost to Cork.

Tight margins and all that. Galway and Tipperary drew their Round 4 clash in Pearse Stadium in March, when a win for the home team would have guaranteed survival in 1A. They led late on in stoppage-time, only for 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer to score the levelling point, giving Tipp a chance to avoid being in a relegation battle, which they duly took by beating Cork a week later.

Provincial business

Tipperary conducted theirs with near-maximum efficiency - inflicing defeats on Cork, Limerick and Waterford far more comfortably than anyone would have expected.

"We wanted to win the Munster championship because we felt it was the best preparation for this team," said Ryan.

Galway also wanted to win Leinster but Kilkenny have a very proprietorial attitude towards the Bob O'Keeffe Cup. Brian Cody's troops won it again and, in the process, re-opened the debate about whether the Tribesmen were progressing, stagnant or regressing.

It also raised an interesting question. Would Tipperary, who have a worse record against Kilkenny than Galway over the last 15 years, have done any better if they were in Leinster?

And would Galway now be approaching the semi-final as provincial champions if they were in Munster?

Team matters

John McGrath, Michael Breen and Séamus Kennedy have made a significant difference for Tipperary this year. McGrath has increased the potency of the attack and looks very much like a player whose influence will continue to grow as he gets more games under his belt at this level.

With Shane McGrath and James Woodlock retired, Breen has prospered at midfield alongside Brendan Maher. His piercing runs into attack yielded two goals against Limerick and one against Waterford, high-quality scores which any forward would be proud of.

With Maher the resident stabiliser around midfield, Breen is encouraged to get forward and is smart enough to time it well.

If Kennedy hadn't joined the hurling squad this year, he would have been aboard for the big football adventure, which has also taken Tipperary into the semi-finals.

Read More: Cody's conveyor belt starting to stall and a big rebuild in store as fear factor ebbs away

He has done very well at No 5, allowing Ronan Maher to switch to centre-back, where his performances belie the fact that he won't be 21 until September.

Adrian Tuohy, who made his senior championship debut against Clare last month, is the only newcomer to Galway's top 20 and he did well enough that day to suggest that he has a bright future ahead of him.

Daithí Burke appears to have the capacity to solve the full-back issue but his relocation weakens the half-back line, although Aidan Harte's return to his best form is a big positive.

The same goes for Joe Canning's re-emergence as the star act in attack against Clare.

And now. . .

It looks a short year since Galway's 0-26 to 3-16 vcitory at the corresponding stage last August and, if anything, the pressure in now greater on both teams.

Losing to Galway for a second successive season would seriously devalue Tipperary's Munster title win while missing out on another chance to win an All-Ireland title that their former manager claimed last year was only "inches away' would be a very deflating end to the season for the Tribesmen.

Irish Independent

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