Dermot Crowe: Tipp's finest teams had a star cast in attack and history seems to be repeating itself
On June 21, 2015, at the Gaelic Grounds, Eoin Kelly noticed something different about Tipperary. Their All-Ireland-winning captain from 2010, turned commentator for the day, had a bird's eye view of the Munster semi-final against Limerick, their conquerors over the previous two summers. For almost two-thirds it was a struggle; then in the final 20 minutes Tipp cut loose, outscoring Limerick 2-11 to 0-2. "Every time the ball went into the Tipp forward line," says Kelly, "I felt they were going to score."
Tipp racked up 4-23, a monstrous tally, and the 16-point defeat was the heaviest inflicted by the county on Limerick in the Munster Championship for 53 years. Seamus Callanan had two goals inside a half an hour. John O'Dwyer hit a string of spectacular points. All but four white flags were scored from play. From his vantage point, Kelly watched them in full flow, a team that looked unstoppable. They had moved on to a different level.
That does not sound unfamiliar now, but it is easy forget how much has changed. "I always found, when I was hurling, going to Limerick, no matter what Limerick team you were playing, even if they had done poorly in the league or were in transition, it was always to the wire, it was a hard day's work," says Kelly of that day. Tipp paid ho heed to recent history. With their forwards demonstrating an unmistakable chemistry, they obliterated Limerick in the final third of the match.
The moment it really hit home for Kelly came around midway through the second half after a nasty collision between Seamus Callanan and the Limerick goalkeeper Barry Hennessy. Callanan's front teeth were broken in the clash which forced him to leave the field for eight minutes but he returned to finish the game. "It signalled to me that the forwards' attitude had changed, along with their work ethic and their desire to win any kind of ball," says Kelly. "And I am talking of when John McGrath wasn't even part of this."
In the 1960s Tipperary struck gold when discovering an attacking cast that didn't just beat teams so much as pulverise them. The signature performance came in the 1964 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, the reigning All-Ireland champions. Tipp weren't even reigning Munster champions but they went on a frenzy, scoring five goals, including three for Donie Nealon, to sweep to victory by 14 points.
In the course of that and the following season, when they retained their title, they were virtually unbeatable and ran up huge scores. Richly talented throughout the field, their attack had six of the best the game has ever produced. There were occasional variations, players coming in and others dropping out, but some of the names resonate across the ages, men who struck fear in the heart of opponents: Jimmy Doyle, Liam Devaney, Mackey McKenna, Babs Keating, Liam Kiely and Sean McLoughlin.
Their period of dominance merged with the dawn of television. In the 50 years since, two Tipp forward lines come close to being mentioned in the same breath. One was masterminded by Keating. With Tipp's re-emergence in the late '80s came a set of forwards which were smooth and easy on the eye, capable of doing wonderful things. And while it's early days, and ultimate judgement must be reserved, the current gathering has the potential to be as good as anything that has worn the blue and gold over the years.
They are missing Callanan today, one of the longer-established members of their scoring syndicate, but there is no shortage of men waiting to replace him in the queue. "Some of the stuff the players have," states Kelly, "it is so natural. It's what's between their ears. Like Noel McGrath's second goal last Sunday, when Bubbles actually floated in that pass, he saw Noel making the run from behind the Wexford player. If it had been put in low, they would not have scored a goal. People will say it was a great catch, and it was, but the ball played in by Bubbles was magnificent."
Kelly is relieved to see the day past where Tipperary resorted to converting backs into forwards to help them win more ball in the air. The telepathy that exists was conveyed after beating Wexford when John McGrath said he expected Dan McCormack to know intuitively where he was for his second goal. There is an absence of individualism and a talent for lethal finishing. "They've spooked defences," says Kelly, although he expects a far stiffer and more robust resistance from Galway this afternoon.
Last Sunday Wexford employed a sweeper they've used to good effect all year and they were breathing down Tipp's neck with ten minutes to go. Then it was over in a matter of a few moments. Tipp found a new gear, scoring 2-4 in six minutes without reply. Callanan had a relatively quiet day but the McGrath brothers divided 4-4 evenly between them and Michael Breen, taken off in last year's All-Ireland final, came on and had a huge influence in the second half.
Tipp have multiple scoring outlets which makes the task of tying them down for a full match notoriously hard for any defence. After watching Tipp destroy Limerick two years ago, Waterford managed to deny them a goal in the Munster final but still lost by five points. In last year's Munster final, Waterford were well in touch by half-time but ended up conceding five goals and losing by 21 points, an extraordinary beating for a team that had won the league the previous year and contested last year's final, with the talent at their disposal and with defensive play their main anchor.
Michael Cleary was on the Tipp forward line that won two All-Irelands in Babs Keating's time as manager, one that hardly changed in the three years from 1989 to '91. "In (Pat) Fox, Nicky (English), (John) Leahy and Declan (Ryan) you had players who would stand alone in any generation," says Cleary. "Those four players to me were as good as Tipp ever produced.
"One of the ingredients of top players in any code is they are smart people, they have a good hurling brain, they can tune into what other people are thinking and can see what a player is doing a second before anyone else and I think that is true to any great team."
For all that, Cleary feels that, for their talent, they underachieved. He wonders if there was a day where they blew aside a top-quality opposition. He picks out a first round win over Limerick in '91, on a wet and windy day in Thurles, as one day when their forwards were in perfect harmony. They scored twice as many goals in both the Munster final and replay against Cork but Limerick were strong and they beat them by 14 points.
"I don't know is there such a thing as a perfect forward line," says Cleary, whose own game was all about skill and impeccable touch. "I think you arrive with a bunch of players who just gel or click. We really got on as people and I wonder do you need to be good friends? To this day we still get on very well together. I actually have a feeling there might be something like that in it."
Of the current bunch Cleary understand why people are excited. "I think they are exceptionally good. I really do. John McGrath seems the one that people talk about, and I think he has given Noel a new lease of life. You have the two McGraths, Bubbles and Seamie Callanan. Dan McCormack would not stand out as a marquee player. Yet he is an integral player to Tipp."
In his day they had Cormac Bonnar, and Donie O'Connell at times, to break up the play and win the hard ball. Now it is current All-Star 'Bonner' Maher, McCormack and Steven O'Brien who fulfil those roles. They scored two goals in the All-Ireland final last year, no more than Kilkenny, but their accumulated score of 35 points matched what they achieved the day they shot the lights out against Limerick two years ago when Eoin Kelly was a spectator.
Goals though are a characteristic. Like in Donie Nealon's day. The historian Seamus King revealed the extent of their dominance over the two seasons '64 and '65, during which they played 24 competitive games, winning 21, losing two and drawing one. They scored 51 goals and 154 points in '64 and 52 goals and 148 points in '65. It averaged out at approximately 4-13 per game. Over the two seasons they never scored fewer than two goals in any match and they hit nine in the league the first season against Galway in Nenagh. In '65 four of the six Munster inter-provincial forwards were from Tipp at a time when that selection had a greater prestige and relevance than it has now.
"In fairness to the present group they are scoring great goals too. They are really going for the goals," says Nealon, who was a team mentor when Tipp re-emerged in the '80s. "I think when it is points, points, points, it takes from the game. I was very much of the opinion that there should be four points for a goal. The reason for the point-scoring now is that generally they are more skilful than in our time, and the ball is lighter."
Cleary sees similarities between Kilkenny and Tipp in how they pursue goals, given the scent. "Like, Tipp's average score is probably 3-15, while for most other counties it is 1-21 or 25 points. The likes of Waterford have hardly anybody within 30 metres of the goal, they can't score too many goals. Goals I think are part of the excitement of the game.
"These lads just look for goals, they are encouraged to go for goals. They have to be. Kilkenny are similar. Cork have changed, it has gone from their game."
Jimmy Doyle was the most feted forward in the '60s and his career tally of 18 goals and 176 points ranked him as Tipperary's all-time top scorer until June 2007 when it was surpassed by Eoin Kelly. More records could be broken when the current gallery has retired. In the meantime, it will be entertaining watching them play unless you are in the firing line. "Tipp public are warming to this team," as Michael Cleary says. "They like this team."
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