Monday 16 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Next decade could belong to Tipperary - and one man holds the key'

With so much young talent in the ranks, manager is well placed to end wait for back-to-back titles

Up for the Cup: Tipp captain Seamus Callanan celebrates with his team-mates as they parade the Liam MacCarthy Cup around Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Up for the Cup: Tipp captain Seamus Callanan celebrates with his team-mates as they parade the Liam MacCarthy Cup around Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Hats off to the great Liam Sheedy. Turning Tipperary from out-of-sorts underachievers into All-Ireland champions within the space of 12 months is one of the outstanding managerial feats of recent times.

Now he faces an even more daunting assignment. By winning this year's title, Tipp bridged a gap of just three years. But retaining it is something they haven't managed in 54.

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Since Tipp's last two-in-a-row in 1965, winning titles on the trot hasn't been a major problem for the other members of hurling's holy trinity. Kilkenny have completed a four-in-a-row and six two-in-a-rows while Cork have managed a three-in-a-row and a two-in-a-row.

Back-to-back titles have proved entirely beyond Tipperary. They're not just the county of Tommy Dunne, they're the county of one and done.

No Premier side ever looked more capable of ending this sequence than the one which foiled Kilkenny's drive for five in 2010. Tipperary's starting line-up in that final included five U-21s who six days later joined with their team-mates at that level to win the decider against Galway by 5-22 to 0-12.

Both Tipperary's total and their winning margin were all-time records. With these prodigious youngsters in the pipeline the county looked likely to dominate the teenies as Kilkenny had the noughties.

Liam Sheedy and Tipperary sponsor Declan Kelly, CEO of Teneo, celebrate after the match. Photo: Sportsfile
Liam Sheedy and Tipperary sponsor Declan Kelly, CEO of Teneo, celebrate after the match. Photo: Sportsfile

Yet that Tipperary-shaped future never happened. Kilkenny beat them in the following year's final and won three of the four after that. It would be another six years before 2010's wonder kids triumphed again.

One thing which militated against the 2010 team kicking on was the resignation of their manager after the final victory. His name was Liam Sheedy. This time he's staying.

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The current Tipp team are experienced but not particularly old. Eleven of yesterday's first 15 are 27 or under, Ronan Maher is just 23, John McGrath, Jason Forde and Michael Breen only 25.

There were no U-20 starters on this year's team but the 20-year-old pair of Jake Morris and Mark Kehoe made important contributions off the bench in the final and semi-final.

James Owens shows Richie Hogan the red card. Photo: Sportsfile
James Owens shows Richie Hogan the red card. Photo: Sportsfile

In a striking echo of nine years ago, they face an All-Ireland U-20 final in six days' time, against Cork. Last year Tipp won their first All-Ireland in this grade since 2010.

They look ideally placed to retain their senior crown. But you could have said the same thing in 2017 when they began the championship as favourites but never really recovered from the sloppy performance which saw them upset by Cork in the first round of the Munster Championship.

The 1989 team were even hotter favourites to complete two in a row but were caught on the hop by Cork.

After winning in 1991 they were again upset by the Rebels the following year. That was an undeniably great Tipperary team yet a slight aura of underachievement hung around it. Kilkenny, you felt, would have extracted more than two All-Irelands from such a magnificent collection of talent.

This failure to repeat by teams from different eras seems more than a coincidence. Psychological and cultural factors may come into the equation. Do Tipperary perhaps lose the run of themselves after winning an All-Ireland? The 1990 loss was prefaced by Babs Keating's notorious "donkeys don't win derbies" jibe at Cork which suggested a certain unhelpful arrogance.

Tipperary hurlers and their fans are a famously, and refreshingly, passionate bunch. Yet when you're trying to create a dynasty, perhaps the cool, calm and collected approach of Kilkenny is more useful. Their perpetual refusal to get carried away means the Cats tend to consign the latest victory to the past with unsentimental alacrity.

The result is that Kilkenny players are hungry for success no matter how many All-Irelands they've won. Tipperary, by comparison, have seemed too easily sated, lacking the same kind of sustained competitive rigour which has made Kilkenny hurling's great winners. Yesterday's victory is a superb achievement by Sheedy's team but unless they follow it up the neighbourly quips about "Tipperary's great one-in-a-rows" won't go away.

If anyone can inspire a paradigm shift, it's Sheedy. Before his arrival Tipperary were accused of lacking character, of being a team with a soft centre who lost heart if knocked out of their stride. Yet in their semi-final against Wexford they overcame having three goals unjustly disallowed and being down to 14 men while trailing by five points with 20 minutes left.

Heights We witnessed a new Tipperary that day and the All-Ireland title was probably won in those final 20 minutes. Sheedy, as he did in 2010, had coaxed the team to new heights. Who's to say he can't do the same thing next year?

Kilkenny's youngsters will benefit from this year's surprise run to the final. Limerick will rue their lackadaisical approach to the semi-final and Galway their carelessness in the Leinster group stages. Both should be serious challengers next year as should a Cork team, particularly if they are reunited with Kieran Kingston.

Yet Tipperary seem best-placed of all. The twenties could well be the Premier decade. Their destiny is once more in their own hands. If Sheedy can prevent them fumbling it, Tipp's greatest era in over half a century could lie ahead.

The demands will be huge but the potential rewards even greater. The outcome of the 2020 hurling championship may rest on the answer to one simple question.

How much will Tipperary want it?

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