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'We were in a horrible place but we didn't collapse or lose hope - we were never in complete despair'

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Michael Ryan, Tipperary, selector. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Michael Ryan, Tipperary, selector. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Michael Ryan, Tipperary, selector. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Tipperary hurling sometimes gets accused of a touch of arrogance but that's an accusation you could never level at their selector Michael Ryan.

"I remember the very early days, going to see Tipp with my dad and the neighbours at home, and never seeing a victory until 1987, when I was 17," he recalls. "That puts it into some kind of context."

A key member of Liam Sheedy's back-room team when they won their last All-Ireland, the former All-Ireland-winning corner-back returned, alongside Paudie O'Neill, when Eamon O'Shea took over two seasons ago.

He is the first to admit that losing to Limerick this year was a particularly low point but says they never lost hope.

"We were in a horrible place. Losing your first-round game brings you to places that, ordinarily, you wouldn't like to go," he admits.

"But maybe you have to go there to figure out exactly what you're doing, where you fit in, and whether everyone has bought into the idea."

Ryan's own mantra during those difficult five weeks - which still remains - was "show me the team that would like to play us".

"We didn't underestimate Limerick," he stresses. "That was a very good Limerick team and remains one. They could well be in the final we're getting ready for.

"We took a few wrong options when we had two or three opportunities to get a draw or push on ahead. We ran out of time.

"But we didn't collapse, it was none of those things. A collapse is an awful thing because the self-doubt becomes limitless. We weren't in the despair of 'what are we doing here?'"

It still left the management chasing its first Championship victory.

"We hadn't achieved what we set out to achieve, which was to set up this team so that they'd always be competitive," says Ryan.

Their next game was, Ryan concedes, "effectively two years' work on the line.

"If we'd shipped a defeat to Galway, here in Thurles, you wouldn't be talking to us," he admits. "That's an absolute certainty. I don't think the county would want us."

Tipp have turned their fortunes around in spectacular style, clocking up 12 goals and 91 points since, even if the debate about their defence, especially the absence of a nailed-down full-back, rattles on.

Ryan believes the No 3 role has changed massively.

Clare's Brian Lohan, Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Tipp's own Philip Maher are mentioned as recent iconic full-backs, as well as Kilkenny legend JJ Delaney.

"Philly Maher was an out-and-out No 3," like Lohan and 'The Rock', Ryan says, but Delaney is different.

"He's spectacular too but he's equally comfortable at four or seven - these guys can go where you need them," Ryan says, stressing that versatility is now the cornerstone of top-class defenders.

"The thing has moved on. If you have a big strong (full-back) player, in the older sense, I think opposing managements would be rubbing their hands," he says.

"They'd just find their fastest guy, and create a two- or one-man full-forward line to go at him.

"It's a pivotal position but it's completely changed to when I was playing, or even 10 days ago," Ryan says. "Having a No 3 that is a fixture on a team is a rarity.

"I'm very happy we've a back unit that understands exactly what it needs to do on any given day."

Kilkenny have won four of their last five Championship meetings with Tipperary but Upperchurch man Ryan says history will be irrelevant on Sunday.

"I honestly believe there's no such thing as a repeat game. Each game is a unique thing," he insists.

"I also happen to believe that the team with the greatest desire will win. You can control that. That's a variable that's up to you to take care of.

"Sport is littered with stories of teams achieving great things.

"We did it in '09 and came up just short. We did it in '10, in what I'd say was a poorer match. I'd argue that Kilkenny turned it back around in '11, and '12 was a shambles.

"You can't do one thing about the opposition other than to expect that these guys are going to be in top form and as good as they ever were. The challenge is ours."

Irish Independent