Friday 18 October 2019

Long road for Tipperary

Lambert can inspire Premier County's climb back to the top

Samantha Lambert with the Mary Quinn Memorial Cup. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Samantha Lambert with the Mary Quinn Memorial Cup. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Declan Rooney

The headline act in Croke Park this afternoon pits Dublin against Galway, but the undercard could see a former powerhouse of the game return to the top flight.

Tipperary and Meath meet in the intermediate final (1.45) and if Samantha Lambert can lead her squad past this outstanding Royal side, Tipp's supporters will feel they're back where they belong.

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Forty-five years ago Tipperary won the first All-Ireland ladies football final with a 2-3 to 2-2 win over Offaly. Played less than three months after the LGFA was officially formed in Hayes Hotel in Thurles, captain of those ground breakers was Kitty Ryan from Ardfinnan - the same club as current captain Lambert.

Ryan is known by her married name Kitty Savage now following her marriage to Petey Savage - a former manager of the ladies club team - and she has memories of a very different game than what we witness today.

"I know ladies football gets great coverage now with TG4 and everything, but our village was packed with people after we won," said Kitty.

"We had a mighty team. We did no training really, just playing football only. We had no expert telling us what to do, no one wanted to bother with us, they didn't want to be seen with us.

"The senior (men's) team were training and we'd go after them. We were copying them, that's how we started."

Tipperary played senior football as recently as last season, but in their first year back in the top tier since 2011, defeats to Donegal and Kerry were followed by a relegation play-off loss to Cavan. After leading by nine points at one stage in the second-half Tipp floundered and immediately returned to the intermediate grade.

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Previously, Paddy Morrissey led Tipp to the intermediate title in 2008, and the following year current manager Shane Ronayne got his first taste of senior football management, but it ended with a 12-point beating from Laois. Back then teams were exempt from relegation for at least two years after promotion, but by the end of 2011 the yo-yo years continued and they dropped a grade once more.

A handful of managers were unable to guide them back into senior, but in the first year of his second stint Ronayne helped Tipp to the Lidl Division 3 league title, the Munster intermediate championship and All-Ireland intermediate title in 2017.

"It'd be great to win it again. I'm still waiting for them to win senior again. I don't know will I ever see that happen," said Kitty.

"To me senior is the top prize. But Tipp are on the up, they have brilliant players now. I would love for them to go up to senior and to stay up there. Keep at it and keep trying to make progress."

While Tipp were the first champions, the foundations for that glory were laid in Ardfinnan in the years before as the notion of ladies playing football sprouted.

"I was captain in '74, but we were playing football from about 1969. We played on The Green in Ardfinnan in front of the church. The first ever match we played was for charity against the Post Office. They had a telephone exchange in Clonmel with about 20 girls in it and we played them. We ran a few tournaments at carnivals and before long clubs started to spring up around the place.

"We got great coverage after the All-Ireland win. I was going into Mass one Sunday and someone told me I was in the Sunday Press. 'Arragh go away,' I said, but there was a big write up on the back page: 'Kitty is on the ball'. I had my photo taken the week before kicking a football. I still have that picture."

From that first team of champions Margaret Carroll, Tina Flynn, Susan O'Gorman and Ryan all hailed from Ardfinnan, but the youngsters of today look up to the next generation of Tipperary players.

Lambert is joined by Laura Dillon as the two club representative in the squad and the captain sees huge growth in the game around home.

"I brought the cup home in 2017 and it was something else. It gave the village a brilliant lift. To do it again would be even more special," said Lambert, whose aunt Antoinette played in the 1980 All-Ireland winning Tipp team.

"I was down at the training field the other day and the team had an evening for us. The amount of little girls playing football is huge below in Ardfinnan. A win on Sunday would give it another boost.

"We're a small village and we could do with a lift like this. To inspire young girls to play the game would be brilliant. Hopefully I can bring the cup across the bridge on Monday evening. It'd be a dream come true again."

Fifteen years ago Kitty was one of 30 winning captains honoured on All-Ireland finals day - coincidentally the last time Galway won the senior title - and she'll be looking on today to see if Tipp can graduate again.

"We were the first team ever to win it and they can't take that away from us! The 13th of October 1974 in Durrow. Agnes O'Gorman was the Offaly captain that day - we only won by a point.

"But every game was the same as an All-Ireland to me.

"It was win, win, win at all costs. That's the way I always played it and that's the way our team played it.

"I'd love to see Tipp competing there again. That would be my dream to see it happening."

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