Sunday 21 January 2018

'Tipp's footballer's problem, like Dundalk's, is that they are overshadowed' - Eamonn Sweeney laments two tales of the unexpected

Daryl Horgan of Dundalk celebrates his team's third goa'. Photo: Sportsfile
Daryl Horgan of Dundalk celebrates his team's third goa'. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Sweeney of Tipperary: 'A distinguishing feature of both teams, and I’m sure Kenny and Kearns have a lot to do with this, is a refusal to engage in self-pity’. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

As Chuck Berry sang, it goes to show you never can tell. This year we've already had the European Championships, big Champions League matches, Wimbledon, four golf Majors, a Super Bowl, Cheltenham and the Six Nations. On the horizon are the Olympics, the All-Ireland finals and the Ryder Cup.

Yet there hasn't been - and I'd wager there won't be - anything quite like the double whammy provided in the space of three days last week by Dundalk FC and the Gaelic footballers of Tipperary. It was exhilarating, it was surprising and it left you with a big goofy grin on your face at the unexpected munificence of sport.

At first glance, the two teams involved might seem to be very different, but in fact they have a lot in common. For one thing, they both had to overcome the weight of history - Dundalk's victory over BATE Borisov makes them just the second League of Ireland club to reach a play-off for a place in the Champions League proper, while Tipperary's rout of Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final puts the county into the semis for the first time in 81 years. Both sides were outsiders for a reason.

They also share a sense of adventure which was crucial in helping them overcome the odds. In an era of constipated, safety first possession football it seemed downright weird to see Tipperary players take a chance and repeatedly float long, high balls into Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney in the full-forward line.

The tactic worked, not least because a Galway team used to playing sides who took an eon to work the ball forward simply couldn't cope with the novelty of a more direct approach.

Even when David McMillan's goal just before half-time sent Dundalk in level on aggregate in Tallaght, it seemed that the Lilywhites' wisest option would be to defend in depth against their technically superior opposition and hope to nick a goal on the break.

Instead they came out and played the side from Belarus off the field, showing no more fear against the hot favourites than they'd have shown against Longford Town or Wexford Youths. The final result might have been 3-0, but Dundalk wouldn't have been flattered by 6-0. In this game too, the favourites seemed somewhat stunned by the effrontery of what they were witnessing.

In going for the jugular in this manner, Dundalk dealt a hammer blow to the conventional wisdom which has painted the League of Ireland as being in terminal decline. There's been general agreement that the progress of Shelbourne to within 180 minutes of the 2004-2005 Champions League group stages was the product of an era when the League was in much sturdier shape than it is now. This year seemed one of the least likely ever for a League of Ireland club to make history.

Similarly, Tipperary's breakthrough comes at a time when we're told that the gap between the top Gaelic football counties and the rest is getting wider by the year. A struggling Division Three team like Tipp simply weren't supposed to go this deep into the championship.

Both sides have seriously under-rated managers at the helm. Some recognition is finally beginning to trickle in Stephen Kenny's direction, but he still isn't getting anything like his due. In a country where a manager can earn a reputation as a miracle-working guru on the back of one All-Ireland, Kenny's achievement in creating from scratch the finest League of Ireland team in living memory still isn't properly appreciated. I don't think there's been a finer bit of team building in any Irish sport.

In the last few years I can't remember Liam Kearns' name being mentioned in connection with even the least glamorous inter-county managerial vacancies. Yet his achievement with Limerick footballers was remarkable. I can still remember vividly the last-gasp drama at the 2004 Munster final in the Gaelic Grounds, as Limerick sought to clinch a first provincial title since 1896. With the sides level and Kerry out on their feet, the home side had three chances to score a match-winning long-distance free. Three times the ball seemed about to drop over and three times Darragh ó Sé rose on the goal-line and plucked it down. Kerry won the replay, after trailing by seven points, and went on to win the All-Ireland.

The previous year Limerick had lost the final by five points in Killarney in a game where they missed two penalties and saw star forward Steven Kelly forced off the field by a Kerry defence taking advantage of some extremely indulgent refereeing. They could have won that one too, and had their chances against Kerry in the 2005 decider as well. Yet that side and their manager now seem largely forgotten. That's why it's so cheering to see the second coming of Liam Kearns.

A distinguishing feature of both teams, and I'm sure Kenny and Kearns have a lot to do with this, is a refusal to engage in self-pity. Dundalk's players were facing opposition who earn far, far more than they do. They were forced to play the decisive second leg away from their home ground and a transport mix-up which cost them a night's sleep had made it difficult for the players to do themselves justice in the first leg. There were plenty of excuses there if the Dundalk wanted to make them. They didn't.

The Premier County players could also have felt sorry for themselves. So many key players have left the panel that Tipperary had half a team missing when they embarked on this championship journey. They were coming off an awful league campaign and few pundits would have been surprised if they'd thrown in the towel from the get-go. They didn't.

Perhaps one of the reasons that both teams have refused to buckle under adversity is that they're fed up with being underestimated and condescended to. The most telling post-match comment in Tallaght was Stephen O'Donnell's insistence that Dundalk's victory would earn respect for all League of Ireland players.

No one is more entitled to call for that respect than O'Donnell. As a kid, he had enough natural talent to spend three years in the youth team at Arsenal. Since returning home, he has scored the winner for Shamrock Rovers in the victory over Partizan Belgrade on one of the other proudest nights in European competition for domestic soccer and, two seasons ago, he made a miracle comeback from a serious knee injury - getting back in time to score the crucial first goal in Dundalk's title showdown against Cork City.

He has always been a model of diligence and integrity, as honest a sportsman as there is in Ireland. Yet he and many like him have been mocked as if they're not much more than pub footballers. Tipperary footballers are no strangers to mockery. They've seen the Munster Championship draw fixed to keep Cork and Kerry apart until the final. Even after busting up that particular cartel they had to spend last week listening to nonsense about the awfulness of the fact that Kerry would make an All-Ireland semi-final "having only had to play against Tipperary and Clare".

The implication was that there is something uniquely contemptible about the Munster minnows. But the truth is that Dublin/Donegal or Mayo/Tyrone won't have had a particularly rocky road to the semis either. The top four teams in Munster are probably stronger than all but one of the teams in the Leinster and Connacht championships. For all the talk of Ulster being a vicious cockpit of competition, the quartet of Kerry, Tipperary, Clare and Cork stacks up reasonably well against that of Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan and Derry.

Tipp's problem, like Dundalk's, is that they are overshadowed. In the case of the latter, it's English football which monopolises the glamour and lures away the fans. In the case of the former, it's Tipperary hurling which too many people see as the only game in town. Keeping football going in a hurling county can pose the same kind of problem as keeping the League of Ireland alive in the world of Sky Super Sunday.

One man's 'if you were any good, you'd be playing in England' is another's 'if you were any good, you'd be playing hurling'. To get past that takes guts and a certain stubbornness, qualities much in evidence as both sides won legions of new fans in three never-to-be-forgotten days.

In the end, the most powerful thing Tipperary and Dundalk had in common was that nobody saw them coming. We all, pundits and fans alike, like to try our hand at clairvoyance, but when it came to predicting the highlights of 2016, nobody would have named Dundalk's European and Tipperary's All-Ireland campaigns. This simply wasn't in the script.

There's something great about that. In the words of that great director Nicholas Ray: "If it's all in the script, why make the movie?"

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