Sunday 25 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Tipp have come from a bottling masterclass to the best comeback since the 1991 Munster final replay'


Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy celebrates with daughter Aisling following his side's victory
Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy celebrates with daughter Aisling following his side's victory
Duel in the sun: Conor McDonald of Wexford is tackled by Ronan Maher (left) and Padraic Maher of Tipperary during yesterday’s All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Sisyphus would have been proud of Tipperary. He's the king from a Greek myth that the Gods condemned to eternally roll a rock uphill. When he neared the top, down it tumbled and back he went to retrieve the boulder and begin again.

For much of the 70-plus minutes at Croke Park, Tipp were engaged in a similar operation. Rocked by a whirlwind Wexford start, they steadied themselves with a Michael Breen goal in the seventh minute, only for referee Sean Cleere to harshly rule it out. So they bounced back two minutes later with an undisallowable goal by Séamus Callanan.

Brendan Maher of Tipperary commiserates with Wexford No 11 Conor McDonald. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Maher of Tipperary commiserates with Wexford No 11 Conor McDonald. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The gods, and the Cleerester, were only warming up. In the 31st minute Tipp, trailing by four points, had a John McGrath goal ruled out. This time it was because Brian Hogan was adjudged to have brought down a Lee Chin shot from behind the crossbar.

The ball had been cleared, worked down the field and delivered by John O'Dwyer to McGrath, who put it in the net before retrospective justice was applied.

The unprecedented nature of the decision would have dispirited many teams. Instead Tipp rattled over three points in a row, again quickly compensating for a goal that might have been.

However, when John McGrath's deserved sending off in the 45th minute was followed by a Lee Chin goal three minutes later, Wexford had one foot in the final.

The 14 men rallied once more, this time wiping out Wexford's lead with a beautiful quintet of points in a seven-minute spell, only for a Conor McDonald goal 11 minutes from time to put them back to square one. The corner-forward had been in the square before the ball, but, as seemed to be Tipp's fate, the decision didn't go in their favour.

Another three-point Tipperary run brought them level again. With two minutes of normal time left, Cleere, emerging as the game's most influential figure, dubiously penalised Pádraic Maher for overcarrying. Chin pointed the free and Wexford led as injury-time approached.

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Tipp appeared to have struck a decisive blow when Jake Morris goaled. Yet Cleere had saved his worst call until last, disregarding the advantage rule and awarding Tipp not a penalty, which looked possible, but a free. If Tipp had been looking for excuses, they had plenty of them. Instead they found answers as Callanan nearly got a second goal. Forde pointed the 65 and Tipp prevailed by two points.

They'd had three goals disallowed, all of which looked more legitimate than Wexford's second and still wouldn't be defeated. It puts Limerick's complaints about being denied a '65' into perspective.

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Cleere's performance was poor and it's doubtful whether he should be awarded a major match, but given the GAA's loyalty to other officials who have endured miserable performances on the biggest stage, I think we'll probably see him again in Croke Park.

Tipperary might be bothered by the referee's decisions, but this morning, they won't care.

This was their best comeback since the 1991 Munster final replay. What makes it truly remarkable is that this side were unlikely candidates to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in such a manner.

In recent times the Premier have been hurling's fancy Dans, superb when things were going their way but apt to wilt under pressure. Last year's championship campaign was like a bottling masterclass and this year's Munster final seemed like a reprise.

So this performance was as surprising as seeing Hugh Grant play the title role in a remake of Rambo. It was a stirring tribute to the change wrought by Liam Sheedy.

The Portroe man has been the invisible manager in this year's championship. After the provincial decider all the talk was about how Kiennerkly (Kinnerk and Kiely) had reinvented hurling.

The run-up to yesterday's game was dominated by tales of how Davy Fitzgerald feeds the starving and redresses the injustices of Irish society. Brian Cody will get the lion's share of coverage before the final.

Yet Sheedy's achievement is a considerable one. When he took over you thought of how seldom there are successful second acts in hurling management.

Greats like Loughnane, Farrell and Keating found the magic had gone when they came back.

Sheedy was gambling with his reputation and taking over a team whose best players seemed to be in the twilight of their careers. The prognosis was that Tipperary would need a substantial injection of new blood.

The new manager disagreed and stuck with the old guard. He kept faith with them even after a Munster final prompted suggestions that some of his key men might not have the legs for the contemporary game.

It was a masterstroke. Because when Tipperary were under the cosh yesterday, it was the veterans, Pádraic Maher, Séamus Callanan, Brendan Maher and above all the marvellous Noel McGrath, who drove the team on and got it home. Sheedy's loyalty was handsomely repaid.

This is a Sisyphus story with a twist. Because in the end Tipperary did get the rock to the top of the hill. After a brief rest, they'll find a mountain in front of them and an enormous black and amber obstacle to be shifted.

But at least this time the Kilkenny danger men will be carrying hurls rather than a whistle.

Irish Independent

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