Sunday 17 December 2017

O'Shea still chasing 'rhythm' in shadow of old maestros

Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea celebrates his side's victory with goalkeeper Darragh Egan
Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea celebrates his side's victory with goalkeeper Darragh Egan
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On a gable of The Coachyard Inn, entering Thurles from the Two-Mile-Borris side, you encounter 'The Legends' Wall'.

Giant murals of a few old Tipperary greats stare sternly down from on high, faithful to a tradition in these parts of venerating special hurling men to the point of martyrdom. Some believe the wall to be another of those gentle conceits confirming nature to have planted a time-bomb in the Tipp psyche.

Like the now decommissioned 'Home of Hurling' sign outside Urlingford, it speaks of devotion to (perhaps even obsession with) a regal past.

Bordering eight hurling counties, Tipp understand only too well how the rest of the game sees them. Yesterday, with the breath of failure on their necks for a long time in Semple Stadium, they knew there would have been little sadness expressed at other hurling venues had Dublin pitched them into a relegation play-off.

It didn't happen but, by the end of a flustered, sticky game, Tipp were clinging to a quarter-final place with white-knuckled fists.

Suspicious sorts might wonder quite how much they have invested in this league, but the body language of Eamon O'Shea on the line suggested their difficulties to be no ruse. At Brian Gavin's final whistle, the Tipp manager met his players with the kind of clenched fists and bear-hugs seldom seen this side of championship.

O'Shea himself has noted the importance of having Tipp's "hurling fraternity" on their side, so losing to Dublin on home soil for the first time in 68 years would, at best, have presented a stark challenge to that faith.


That it didn't happen won't quite have stifled local grumblings as Niall McMorrow should really have closed the casket on their league challenge.

McMorrow had so much time and space to convert an injury-time point that would have put Dublin through to the last eight, he could have read his own horoscope before striking. But, inexplicably, the Ballyboden man spooned a gentle lob towards the Killinan end 'square'. It was the moment Tipp escaped.

Had McMorrow known the arithmetic?

"I'm not certain," smiled Anthony Daly after. "I didn't pin him to the wall inside and say, 'did you know the story?' I suppose he was just thinking of the game and got caught up in that. I think everyone knew the situation if Tipp won by three, but I suppose that's the whole ebb and flow of the thing.

"It was a really good point chance, but Niall had done some great work when he came on for us and set up a few things, so no blame to Niall. It's disappointing but what can you do? It's a mad league and I felt we hurled really well."

That they undoubtedly did. Just 21 minutes in, they were 0-9 to 0-3 clear of a Tipp team hurling without discernible shape or candour. O'Shea is broadly recognised as the man who oiled the hinges of their sublime forward movement in 2010, but they were reduced largely to hit-and-hope here.

In an era that covets possession, Tipp looked to be playing from the Old Testament.

Dublin's use of the ball was wiser, their appetite for the collision easier to recognise.

Alan McCrabbe and Ryan O'Dwyer particularly were getting the better of their men yet, crucially, a Tipp defence that had been leaking an average of four goals per game, had found some semblance of resistence.

On 16 minutes, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher should have netted for Tipp, running down the throat of the Dublin defence like a man charging a machine-gun nest, only to offload unwisely to Jason Forde when he could see the whites of Gary Maguire's eyes.

Yet, from six points down, Tipp did – finally – summon a hint of dander, outscoring the Dubs 0-6 to 0-1 between the 23rd and 35th minutes. It proved the winning of the game.

For they were markedly better after the resumption, Bonner Maher's 42nd minute goal re-awakening that tenuous local belief that Tipp were simply too good to go down. Trouble was, they couldn't really drive on past impressively obstinate opposition. The goal drew them level and when, with 23 minutes remaining, Noel McGrath edged them in front for the very first time, it looked like the storm in their heads was abating.

But this is a Tipp team entrapped by odd worries.

Whilst Seamie Callanan is hurling beautifully and moving with proper attacking venom and while Noel McGrath blossomed after the resumption, you still sense heads looking over shoulders for a familiar cavalry in the shape of Padraic Maher, Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly, the latter given 20-odd minutes here.

O'Shea accentuated the positives afterwards, without necessarily side-stepping the truth. Referencing "the predicament" Tipp were in, he reflected: "I just want to say that this team is a solid team – anybody that underestimates Tipperary, it's a mistake.

"We probably were missing one third of our team who you think might be live contenders for championship, today. That's five or six quality players – we've been missing players all through the league here and there, but our form still wasn't good. I'm not trying to take away from the common perception, which is right.

"We just couldn't seem to get rhythm in our play. The positive thing about this week and even last week before the Galway game ... this is why I was really annoyed that we didn't play to our potential last week ... because we've had two or three weeks of really good training, really good work.

"I don't disagree that our performances went through bad patches and I wouldn't criticise anybody for the criticism. This is life. Sometimes I think Tipp are a team that have to have rhythm."

So they ride the pendulum of this daft league, facing Cork in a quarter-final next Sunday while Dublin plunge towards a relegation play-off against Waterford. For Daly, the latter fixture now represents "an even bigger game than any quarter-final."

And Tipp? O'Shea talked of finding a way to untangle crowded opposition defences before summer and of building upon what has now fallen fortuitously their way. "We are trying get it right," he said. "It doesn't always work, but today we got over the line."

Maybe not quite the clarion call Tipp old-timers crave, but the county needs realism now more than it needs rhetoric. The gods of the past can't help them.

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