'The belief you should have when you pull on the Tipp jersey is missing, it's gone'
Leahy demands response against Galway – but character of players under scrutiny
Two days after Tipperary's defeat of Limerick in the 2012 Munster Championship, a dormant volcano erupted in Thurles.
Declan Ryan, recognised for the famously low mileage on his temper, delivered a 15-minute speech to the Tipp players, angrily reiterating the responsibilities of being county men. He'd heard how some chose to extend their celebrations into the Monday, as if a single championship victory somehow constituted deliverance.
The irony hadn't been lost on him that Tipp were rescued in the game by the second-half arrival of Patrick 'Bonner' Maher, a noted teetotaller.
Even for those who had played with Ryan in the white heat of championship, his anger was a revelation. He'd always been a calm, vaguely inscrutable leader on the field, a figure seemingly impervious to anxiety. But he seemed to sense something putrid build within Tipp now.
Less than three months later, a second-half collapse against Kilkenny sentenced the county to its heaviest championship defeat since 1897 and Ryan walked away.
The starkness of that collapse was largely obscured afterwards by focus on the tactical pantomime of Lar Corbett, Tipp's greatest single goal threat, being deployed in a marking role on Kilkenny wing-back Tommy Walsh. Corbett explained in his autobiography afterwards that the tactic had been an agreed ploy, designed to corrupt Kilkenny's structure.
That it failed on such a monumental level would un-tap serious levels of recrimination within the county. Recrimination that, to this day, still seems to contaminate Tipp's system.
They won two Munster titles under Ryan, but are now without a summer victory since the 2012 provincial final.
Their defeat to Limerick on June 1 was, thus, their fourth championship loss in a row and one subsequently salted by reports of players drowning their sorrows with conspicuous abandon that bank holiday Monday in Thurles.
In an era that seems to demand almost monastic self-discipline from inter-county players, the sense of Tipp housing a few career-rebels thus gathered traction. And an editorial in the 'Tipperary Star' faithfully articulated the anger of supporters who have lost faith in their hurlers' ability to win difficult contests.
Tipp, thus, go into tonight's All-Ireland qualifier against Galway in Semple with everything to prove to their people.
It isn't their hurling that is doubted, but their character. There have been too many off-field indiscretions and too many on-field meltdowns for fans not to declare a connection. Lose tonight and the Thurles acoustic will not be kind.
The reflex Tipp consensus this week seems to have taken refuge in the line that, "if there is anything" in the team, it will surely find expression now.
But John Leahy is suspicious of that cliche, suggesting it fails to factor in the recidivism now ingrained in the Tipp story. The three-time All Star, who served as a selector with 'Babs' Keating between '05 and '07, fears that Tipp no longer feel sufficiently offended by failure.
"We played a league final and I would ask did we hurt enough after it, with Kilkenny beating us for the umpteenth time (they have won eight of nine meetings with Tipp since the 2010 All-Ireland final)" says Leahy. "Are we hurting enough in Tipperary over that? I'm not so sure we are.
"Then Limerick beating us, when we just didn't show enough toughness in the last 10 minutes to win. These players have got a lot of opportunities in important games to show that they want it more than the opposition and they haven't done it. That's my worry. The league final in my book wasn't just about winning a league. It was about Tipp beating Kilkenny, but we couldn't do it. People seemed happy afterwards just to have put up a performance. But Tipperary hurling isn't there just to put up a performance.
"Teams should be delighted to put up a performance against us."
Hardness was once Tipp's calling card but, in modern times, there have been recurring debates about the character of their county men. The team Keating built to win All-Irelands in '89 and '91 played, largely, with a velvet glove. If they encountered criticism afterwards, it was that – with their class – they ought to have won more than two All-Irelands.
Nicky English was only two years retired as a player when he replaced Len Gaynor as Tipp manager in late '98. Although they had reached the '97 All-Ireland final, English believed the county's hurlers had acquired the habit of losing too many tight games. Between their '91 All-Ireland victory and his own appointment, they had lost eight championship contests, seven by a single score.
English made it his priority to reform the very personality of a Tipp hurler.
He held formal, one-to-one interviews with all aspiring panellists in the Anner Hotel, then set down penal body-fat targets for those who survived the process. English's Tipp unashamedly took Clare's as the physical template to follow, with only those willing to pare their lifestyles accordingly retaining his interest.
He jettisoned some of the most skilful hurlers on the basis that, in the modern game, skill alone could be no protection against physical extremism. Uniquely, Tipp hurlers were, thus, exposed to gruelling hill runs up Devil's Bit and purposefully devastating team-building exercises in the hands of Garda fitness experts at the training college in Templemore.
When that physical exertion took them to the point of exhaustion, they underwent aptitude tests to ascertain how they were coping mentally.
English's first act, in other words, was to weed out those he deemed in any way equivocal about hurling for Tipperary. By the time they won the All-Ireland in '01, he had refined that ferocity of physical preparation down to something more hurling-appropriate. Under Jim Kilty, they would adhere to a gentler, abbreviated training process known as SAQ – Speed, Agility, Quickness.
Tipp went unbeaten through the '01 season, winning league and championship. And that All-Ireland came to be defined, above all, by strength of character because Tipp faced a psychological war in every game that summer, winning their games by margins of one point (Clare), two points (Limerick), in a replay (Wexford) and a goal (Galway).
The torture had served its purpose.
That Tipp side was, of course, then overtaken by Brian Cody's Kilkenny, the team that has rewritten all expectations of the modern county hurler.
It would take almost a decade for them to chase down Cody but, when they finally did in 2010, Tipp seemed well set for an extended reign at the top. Corbett admits in his autobiography that he felt "betrayed" by the subsequent management decision to resign en bloc one month after that final. It was a decision that propelled a faintly reluctant, Ryan, into the manager's chair with Tommy Dunne as his assistant. Through the next two seasons, both would find their patience tested.
The stories of epochal drinking sessions being undertaken by certain players undoubtedly grew some artificial legs. But there is little doubt that, compared to their rivals, Tipp have had a difficult dressing-room. Eamon O'Shea's appointment after the 2012 meltdown would have been welcomed within that room, given the connection it re-established with the 2010 All-Ireland win.
But O'Shea had been the unorthodox member of Liam Sheedy's management team. An economics professor at NUIG, he was quiet-spoken and prone to gentle eccentricities. He was seen as Tipp's tactical wizard whose style of communication became the perfect, soft-focus alternative to Sheedy's bluntness. Corbett tells a story that encapsulates O'Shea's difference.
"During one training session, he sidled over to me, but said nothing, just looked me up and down for several seconds," he writes in his autobiography, 'All in My Head'. "'What's up?' I asked.
"'Nothing Lar, I just wanted to see if you're right,' he replied and gave me the two thumbs up before walking away."
Without Sheedy's candour to frame the dressing-room dynamic now, that kind of story radiates a distinct innocence. And the fear in Tipp is that, for all his tactical nous, O'Shea's personality may lack the serrated edge needed to draw defiance from his team. The three championship games and two league finals lost on his watch have all been single-score defeats. Now Galway come to town with Tipp's modern championship record against the Tribesmen suggesting the likelihood of another nailbiter. Since beating them in the '01 All-Ireland final, Tipp have won two ('03 and '10) of their three championship games against Galway, both by single-point margins. In '05, Galway won by two.
Leahy worries that a similarly tight contest could activate old shortcomings.
"I think the pressure on Tipp will be overwhelming because of all that's gone on in the last few weeks," he says.
"And, because of that, I honestly believe the crowd will be an important player. Because, if Tipp don't start well, with the negativity that has gone on, the anxiety will spread. The belief you should have when you pull on the Tipp jersey is missing, it's gone. And we are a difficult county from the point of view of expectation. We've got a very skilful team right now, all of them well able to hurl.
"But all I'm hearing from people is that 'Bonner' Maher is so vital. People are saying 'We need another Bonner!' "That talk gathers momentum and it kind of becomes an issue. Because the truth is we haven't found another 'Bonner'. We've found loads of really skilful hurlers, but is that enough in this day and age?"
To get the crowd on their side tonight, Leahy believes Tipp will need to make some kind of physical statement.
"Can really skilful players do that? I'm not so sure," he says. "They can get nice scores, but can they win dirty ball? Like I would ask the question is every player who has the ingredients to hurl for Tipperary getting that opportunity now? I don't think they are. In Tipp, we lose too many players.
"So those who have the jersey need to stand up. They're at home, they have to mark their territory. They need to want that ball more than Galway want it. But my concern is the courage that 'Bonner' has, I would say, is missing throughout the field. We need to change that in Tipperary. Win, lose or draw against Galway now, that's the bigger picture."
Addressing it will shape Tipp's future.
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