'Lost years' provide Tipperary with huge motivation
The gods have started to smile again on the blue and gold as 'back door' run inspires new confidence in both players and supporters
It wasn't supposed to be like this, certainly not in many Tipperary minds.
The projections were that 2014 would be a five-in-a-row year, the season when the current generation of players established beyond doubt that they were Tipperary's best of all time.
There were some cautious voices in the county, providing sensible reminders that the All-Ireland senior and U-21 successes of 2010 needed to have their carat purity rechecked for pure gold before making extravagant assessments of its true worth.
However, such was the euphoria on the Saturday evening Tipperary crushed Galway in the 2010 All-Ireland U-21 final in Thurles that even if they boomed their reservations through giant amplifiers in Liberty Square, they would have been drowned out by giddy revellers who thought the blue and gold would never know another bad day.
Tipperary 4-17, Kilkenny 1-18 (Senior).
Tipperary 5-22, Galway 0-12 (U-21).
In fairness, it was easy to understand why perspective struggled for space in Tipperary after those two wins. Their seniors and U-21s had beaten Kilkenny, who were pursuing the All-Ireland five-in-a-row, and Galway, who almost always have very good underage teams, by a combined total of 33 points.
The view in Tipperary was that a new force of nature had arrived which would retain power for a long time.
That Henry Shefflin shuffled off with a recurrence of a knee injury after 13 minutes in the senior final and that, equally importantly, Kilkenny badly missed Brian Hogan's security skills at centre-back was largely ignored. All perfectly understandable at the time, since a team can only play what's in front of it, but highly relevant in the longer term when Tipperary would have to face fully-fuelled Kilkenny machines.
As for Tipperary's 2010 All-Ireland U-21 win, it came against a Galway team most of whom had another year in the grade. Also, Tipperary enjoyed home advantage, turning the occasion into a celebration of the county's hurling riches. Suffice to say that the vast majority of the 21,110 crowd was from Tipperary, providing an inspiring atmosphere for young players who were already buzzing while intimidating their opponents.
Fast-forward almost four years and Tipperary are still seeking their next All-Ireland senior or U-21 medal. Their senior fortunes declined steadily after 2010. They were beaten by Kilkenny in the 2011 All-Ireland final and demolished by Cody's crucifiers in the 2012 semi-final. Limerick ousted them in Munster last year, with Kilkenny showing them the All-Ireland exit door.
So, when Limerick beat Tipperary in this year's Munster semi-final and they trailed Galway by six points after 50 minutes in the All-Ireland qualifier tie three weeks ago, it looked like the downward trend was continuing. By the end of the game, the mood and expectations all over Tipperary had changed dramatically after they out-scored Galway by 2-10 to 0-1 on the run-in.
Were those the 20 minutes that re-ignited the All-Ireland fire? There was certainly a giddy mood in the environs of Semple Stadium afterwards, before Eamon O'Shea reached for the coolant.
"I wouldn't be building monuments to the team or anything like that," he said. "We're doing our best. We fail at times. We're human. It's just nice that the public can see the players in a different light because these are really good men."
However, it was his remark that "we are at a very early stage" which hung in the summer air. The early stage of what? Haven't most of them been around for a long time?
Eleven of the 18 players (it would have been 12 if Conor O'Mahony had been fit) who played against Galway three weeks ago featured against Kilkenny in the 2010 All-Ireland final, while Eoin Kelly, captain four years ago, made an appearance against Offaly a week later. Michael Cahill, now one of the top defenders, was aboard in 2011.
So, while Tipperary have some new faces aboard, they are essentially an experienced group of individuals. And that's where an issue arises, because despite all the individual seasoning, they still don't have a settled team.
It's as if the management is still finding it very difficult to decide on the best formation, which is surprising. They have relocated Paudie Maher to full-back this season with James Barry the new No 6.
Despite having considerable experience at No 3 as an underage player, and, indeed, in his early senior days, Maher hasn't looked all that comfortable so close to goal, not least against Galway's Jonathon Glynn. Maher operates on the shoot-or-be-shot principle, either winning possession spectacularly or allowing his man to do likewise. Unlike the likes of JJ Delaney, he does not play the percentage game, which carries serious risks.
That's why Anthony Daly could profit from posting Conal Keaney, a brilliant fetcher on a good day, near the Tipperary square.
James Barry is still settling in as Tipperary's centre-back, which is quite a challenge for any player at this stage of the season. He can expect some direct running into his zone by various Dubs.
Tipperary have conceded heavily throughout most of the year, but, on the plus side, have scored heavily too. Indeed, it was a surge in scoring power which took them out of a deep hole against Galway and they followed that
up with an even bigger haul against Offaly (5-25).
There's no doubt that the attack is hugely productive on their better days, but they have tended to rely too much on Seamus Callanan, both from open play and frees. His 5-23 (0-17 frees) total in their three championship games represents almost 40pc of Tipperary's scoring. When returns from John O'Dwyer (0-12) and Lar Corbett (2-5) are added in, it takes the trio's contribution to almost 67pc of the total. A broader spread of scoring threats would be much preferable.
Dublin will present a tougher defensive test to Callanan and Co than either Offaly or Galway, which is why the defence will have to be more secure if Tipperary are to drive on towards All-Ireland glory. That's assuming that Dublin raise their attacking performance to a much higher level than they reached against Kilkenny, when they hit a measly 1-9.
The gods smiled on Tipperary when handing them home advantage against Galway three weeks ago and continued their benign treatment when taking them back to Semple Stadium for the quarter-finals. Is it a sign that they have bigger plans in store for them?
It's a long way from the five-in-a-row territory mentioned by more excitable Tipperary sorts four years ago, but at least the show is still on the road, unlike last year when it crashed in Nowlan Park in early July.
Doubts still persist about Tipperary, but the same applies to all the remaining contenders, including Kilkenny.
Whoever masks the flaws best will take the Liam MacCarthy Cup. That's not an area where Tipperary have been especially good in recent seasons, but, as they discovered in 2010, the 'back door' route can provide huge confidence once a run gets going.
The wins over Galway and Offaly may have done just that for Tipperary.
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