Saturday 26 May 2018

Comment: Uneasy spotlight again falls on Tipp

Cathal Barrett celebrating Tipp’s All-Ireland win last September. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Cathal Barrett celebrating Tipp’s All-Ireland win last September. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When Tipperary lost their Munster semi-final to Limerick by two points in 2014, one of the local papers, the 'Tipperary Star,' didn't mince its words in getting down to where they felt some of the problems lay.

Their failure to follow up on their 2010 All-Ireland success, despite the accompaniment of an All-Ireland U-21 title with quite some fanfare six days later, in the three seasons that followed carried an undercurrent in the county relating to perceived disciplinary kinks.

The perception was, irrespective of following up with the next two Munster titles back-to-back, including a seven-goal demolition of Waterford in the 2011 Munster final, that they had slackened somewhat and were not adhering to the required levels of monasticism for an inter-county player.

Under the headline 'Tipp in the dock', the writer, Noel Dundon, drew reference to the tolerance of a county running out with a talented bunch of players.

"Word of a drowning of sorrows on Sunday evening and again on Monday in and around Thurles have left supporters very angry and questioning where Tipperary are going," he said, suggesting the optics weren't good "considering that there have been real problems in the past with the so-called 'Monday club'."

Limerick, he pointed out, had their own 'Monday club', assembling early in UL "to get the legs going again after the exertions of battle" that very same day.

The article, which made sure to point out that not all of the players were caught in the crosshairs, cut to the bone and divided opinion in the county.

One thing for a national commentator or publication to express such a view but when it came from within it struck an even deeper chord.

The question of the team's 'connection' with its supporters was raised, a point of discussion in the wake of their sorry 2012 All-Ireland semi-final exit to Kilkenny too.

The following week the paper reproduced many of the letters of support for its general message, pointing out that just three pieces of negative reaction to it had been picked up. But it also sparked a wider debate in the context of the lifestyles inter-county players were supposed to lead and the scrutiny they were held up to.

Professional sports teams regularly disentangle, post-match, from the intensity of preparation in such a manner.

Some can even accommodate a few beers prior to the game as the Wexford hurler Lee Chin observed with some "shock" during his 'Toughest Trade' with Canadian ice hockey team Vancouver Canucks when, he recalled, some of their players were "lowering pints" at lunchtime on the day before a game.

In a previous series focusing on Tipperary's Brendan Maher's integration with the Adelaide Strikers cricket team, the consumption of alcohol was also a topic with Maher telling his colleagues for the week how he would be "crucified" if he was caught drinking two weeks before a game.

Yet, by the end of the summer of 2014, Tipperary were just inches away from being All-Ireland champions, their recovery through the qualifiers setting them up for the following two seasons which culminated in MacCarthy Cup success for the first time in six years.

It's a road that this Tipperary group have travelled in the past.

The 2010 All-Ireland-winning manager Liam Sheedy made an observation, after the publication of the 'Tipperary Star' article, that such reaction and examination of the team's social habits was also there when he was the manager.

"There was one match after 2009 when we made headline news over socialising but it didn't stop us from getting within eight minutes of winning the big prize in September," he noted.

In his autobiography 'Standing My Ground', Brendan Cummins recalled a pivotal meeting in the wake of their 2010 Munster Championship defeat to Cork and his dissatisfaction with the subsequent "socialising".

"I brought this up and made my feelings clear," he wrote. "I was unhappy that some players were nursing hangovers on Monday when I was training."

On that occasion Tipperary went one further and won the All-Ireland title. Their reaction to mid-season controversy and concern over excessive post-match socialising is clearly impressive.

Tipperary are back in sharp focus again in the wake of a Munster Championship defeat, with Cathal Barrett's release from the squad earlier this week for unspecified "disciplinary reasons".

That it was franked with an official communication from the Tipperary County Board confirming his departure, for now at least, represents an escalation to a degree.

Players are cut from squads all the time but in Tipperary the news flow always travels faster.

On Wednesday, the Tipperary secretary told Tipp Fm that Barrett was unfortunate in that he had "let his guard down".

Manager Michael Ryan, a selector in 2009-2010 and again in 2014, clearly decided to draw a line, sending out a firm message with the removal of an All-Star from the squad of reigning All-Ireland champions.

He hasn't shirked hard decisions at any stage since taking over from Eamon O'Shea in a pre-arranged move after the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway.

After their All-Ireland triumph over Kilkenny last September, the question over lessons learned, post-2010, has been repeatedly posed.

In April, Seamus Callanan addressed such a line of enquiry as a "media perception," pointing out that there was "no shame" in losing an All-Ireland final to Kilkenny by four points, a Kilkenny team in which the majority went on to add three more titles in four years after that.

And for the earlier part of the league they gave the aura of a team kicking on with resounding wins over Dublin, Waterford and Clare, a team determined to shed the myth that they don't always cover themselves in glory as champions.

But Kilkenny checked them, Cork beat them and Wexford gave them a most troublesome 60 minutes before that 16-point annihilation to Galway in the league final gave them so much to ponder.

The Cork performance was an improvement but another 'circling of the wagons' meeting in Thurles points to a team needing to reassess for the challenge of qualifiers ahead.

It is not uncharted waters for many of these Tipperary players. But it's a not a place Tipperary expected to be either, once again challenging perceptions around them.

Irish Independent

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