Martin Breheny: 'Can Sheedy reverse Tipp slide?'
Facts don't lie, but do they tell the whole truth? Tipperary are about to find out at a time when opinions on where they stand have rarely been as polarised inside or outside the county.
One theory is that they are a mere tweak away from being a serious All-Ireland force, while another holds that the nosedive hasn't bottomed out and that they remain one-paced, stale and predictable.
First, the facts. Tipperary have won only two of their last 11 competitive games, stretching back to April last year.
The wins came in the first round of this year's Allianz League against Clare and the last round against Cork, who were so passive that their pre-match meal should have been checked for sedatives.
Tipperary drew with Cork and Waterford in last year's year Munster Championship, but otherwise it has been defeats all the way for 13 months against Kilkenny (2018 league final), Limerick, Clare (2018 Munster Championship), Limerick, Wexford, Kilkenny and Dublin (2019 league).
It's the worst record of all ten Liam MacCarthy Cup contenders and by a very long way in several instances.
Despite that, the Tipperary brand remains so strong that they are in the top four in the All-Ireland betting.
More pessimistic Tipp fans don't see it that way, believing that Liam Sheedy is caught between trying to re-energise the 2016 All-Ireland-winning team and scanning the horizon for bright young talent which, despite last year's U-21 success, is slow to emerge. The fear is that this could be a lost season.
Sheedy, back as manager after eight seasons on the punditry circuit, knows what's required to win over a sceptical public.
"If this team brings the level of performance that they're capable of, then the Tipperary public will come in behind them," he said.
Therein rests the big challenge for Sheedy, who knows that his second coming will be judged solely on whether Liam MacCarthy ends the season in Semple Stadium.
He is working for very critical task-masters, a following that expects Tipperary to be better than everyone else, even when they're not.
Sheedy's predecessor Michael Ryan experienced the harsh side of that presumption last summer when Tipperary went through four Munster games without a win.
Just as they couldn't understand post-2010 why a new empire wasn't built, they were mystified as to how the 2016 All-Ireland success became another one-off. They didn't hide their irritation, especially on social media.
In a candid interview with Vincent Hogan in the Irish Independent late last year, Ryan addressed Tipperary's perceived self-regard. "I don't do the sense of self-entitlement. I don't look at it exactly in those terms but I think, therein, is some of the issue. There's an arrogance about us that's unattractive. It's an undercurrent and it's lazy and it's cheap. It's barstool stuff.
"I'm far more interested in the things that create an environment for a really, really good team. And our club championship is not at a sufficiently high level for me.
"Not since God only knows have we produced a club side capable of being in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day," he said.
Actually, it's 25 years, and even then they didn't win as Toomevara went down to Sarsfields (Galway).
Ryan had touched on a broader point, but however valid it might be there's always a view in Tipperary that the county team can come good at any time.
When they won the 2016 All-Ireland final and bounded through the 2017 league to reach the final without really stretching themselves, they looked well-placed to further consolidate their No 1 position.
Instead, they lost heavily to Galway, a setback from which they have never fully recovered. Of course, it might have been very different only for Joe Canning's late wonder-strike, which won the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final for Galway, who went to win the title.
There's a fascination well beyond Tipperary about the impact of Sheedy's return. Will it bring a whole new impetus or are there underlying problems with no quick solutions?
Two wins in 11 games suggests that Tipperary are either in serious decline or they haven't been playing to their capabilities. If it's the former, this season will be a write-off. If it's the latter, Sheedy's skills will be put to the ultimate test.
It's management's job to create the right environment for a team to perform at maximum capability, but even then there's no guarantee of success.
More than ever, that's the situation in hurling where, certainly in Munster, two teams with genuine All-Ireland ambitions won't even make the quarter-finals.
"You know that if you're not at your best, you ain't going to win and if you ain't going to win, then you're going to find yourself outside the top three. It's as simple as that," said Sheedy.
Just as some with a mischievous disposition suggest that Cork didn't really want to beat Tipperary in the league clash in March, there are those who claim that Tipp didn't exactly overstretch themselves against Dublin in the quarter-final.
The Cork angle looks more plausible as they were beyond atrocious in a 13-point defeat, but Tipperary weren't exactly distraught at losing to Dublin either.
Yes, they would have liked to win the league, but having lost to Galway and Kilkenny respectively in the 2017 and 2018 finals, they certainly didn't want to complete an unfortunate treble.
The league campaign revealed nothing new about Tipperary. There were days when familiar problems, such as instability in the full-back line, a lack of overall pace and air war difficulties, underlined the extent of Sheedy's challenge.
But, as they showed against Clare, Cork and, to a lesser extent against Kilkenny who beat them by a point, they have a lot going for them when they get their game right.
Question is - which version will turn up in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow? Sheedy acknowledged after the win over Cork two months ago that settling on his best team was difficult.
"When the day goes well, like today, you think, 'That's it, we have our team', and when the day goes badly, it's scrap them all and bring in another 15. That's the nature of the game I suppose," he said.
The league allowed for second thoughts, but it's serious business now. Sheedy will have learned from Tipperary's bad experiences last year when, according to Michael Ryan, players appeared low on energy when they arrived back from the April club programme.
It carried into the championship, with the crucial opening game against Limerick underlining their difficulties.
They led by a point in the 55th minute but were-out-scored 1-5 to 0-1 from there on.
It got the round robin off to the worst possible start for Tipperary, who never recovered. That memory will be at the back of their minds as they head for Leeside tomorrow, determined to prove that the last two years haven't been a true reflection of their real status.
A win might only be the start of the process, but it would certainly calm frayed nerves, making life easier for Sheedy in his first championship challenge since overseeing the wrecking of Kilkenny's five-in-a-row ambitions in 2010.