Sunday 25 February 2018

Tipp top in a thriller


ON Saturday evening in Cork, Nicky English brought his team to the cinema. They watched the movie `Gladiator' where the recurrent war-cry is a bellicose ``Get ready to unleash Hell!''

We can take it no-one dozed in the velvet seats. For, in Pairc Ui Chaoimh yesterday, the mood of the coliseum seemed to wrap itself around Tipperary.

They did not so much claim the skeleton of an old team as tear the sky with the high sails of a new one.

Clare, their dander waning, fell heavily (2-19 to 1-14) to Nicky English's men in a game of flaring, primeval intensity.

Oscar Wilde wrote: ``In her dealings with man, Destiny never closes her account.''

On this stark, glowering June day, the bould Oscar looked a prophet. So many old hurts seemed to energise Tipp's hurling yesterday as they thrashed out their differences with a team that, through the Nineties, beat them down with habitual authority.

At the end, Ger Loughnane stood manfully to greet his players, visibly grief-stricken by the reflection of ruin before him. Bleached faces and slumped shoulders pushed past him.

LOUGHNANE met the images with weary, but manful grace.

``You prepare as well as you can,'' he sighed ``but you never know if the desire is going to be there. Today, time caught up with us. Tipp are younger, their desire for hurling greater. These are changing times for Clare, you can't cling to the same team forever.''

He was non-committal about the future but even Loughnane's enemies will hope he rejects the lure of retirement. Hurling would be blander in his absence. He is a great schemer but there is a sense that this team could not breathe without the Feakle man.

Yesterday, typically, the preliminaries took shape on a raft of rumour. A ritual of summer now is to second-guess the Banner. Their team-sheet is set before us like a maths paper.

Pythagaros Loughnane stands grinning at folk like he's got their car keys in his pocket.

His hold on opposition minds is more oppressive than any drought, epidemic or potato blight known to man. He is a mind-terrorist. A professor of mirth and mischief. There are times when you sense he could insinuate doubt into the minds of a German army.

SOME things are indefinable. Charisma. Depth. Cussedness. Loughnane has tormented Tipp in recent times to the extent that of late their hurling seemed to ache with a burden of insecurity. That was his power, his secret.

But a great tide ebbed yesterday and, when the canvas dried, English's signature was scraped across the sand.

He is young, bold and just now master of a young team for whom the possibilities are suddenly in startling blossom. Some of Clare's old soldiers may have punched the time clock once too often, but the story here may have been less about requiem than birth.

Scalded by the heat of Clare on June 12 last year, English returned to Championship this time with a re-modelled team and a replenished faith.

AS he reasoned: ``I think the hiding we got last year ... you must face up to those things. You just can't hide and say it never happened. We were annihilated in Cork on June 12, 1999. And, in coming back this year, the danger was that we could just get lost in the hunt for Clare.

``Don't be under any illusions. We had a massive job to get over Waterford. We had to face hard lessons this year and, after beating Waterford, we purposefully did nothing.

``You see, we made mistakes last year. I made mistakes. And you just have to pick yourself up and say it isn't going to happen again. But this is only a semi-final.

``There are no cups around the place and there's a danger if we're not careful that the reality will just escape us. We're going to play the All-Ireland champions in Thurles next.

``It's not a carnival.''

We knew Tipp were a blaze of anger from the moment they hit daylight. Tommy Dunne vaulted the barrier without breaking stride, followed by John Carroll and Paul Shelly.

Now, this barrier is high as an average window-sill. Some of us would need ropes and oxygen to get over, but it looked like these men had been chewing masonry in the dressing-room.

CLARE took a gentler route, jogging west towards the city-goal, keeping their fire within, only Davy Fitz bounding out with that familiar compound of jigs, jumps and jabbing punches.

Loughnane's hand was already on the drama, too, Corofin's Gerry Quinn running out instead of Scariff's Barry Murphy.

But, on this day, Clare needed more than they could muster. Eugene O'Neill lobbed a Tipp point against the breeze after just sixteen seconds and, from that moment, the Banner's minds seemed blackened.

For sure, they would ignite great throaty roars with that old, elemental rhythm. But you sensed they had to beat Tipp early yesterday. And sixteen minutes in, they were five adrift and leaking smoke.

Incredibly, Brian O'Meara had pilfered three of Tipp's seven points from Liam Doyle and there was a decipherable sadness in the ground as Loughnane beckoned the Bodyke man ashore. Time was, Doyle looked as invincible as gravity. Yesterday, he seemed broken.

Elsewhere, Ollie Baker found himself shuffled from midfield to centre-forward to full and finally to the touchline where he spent much of the second-period as a cheer-leader for the saffron hordes. Elsewhere, Eamonn Taaffe and Alan Markham were mere ghosts of themselves.

Clare needed fifteen men ablaze. They got no more than eight.

At times, you have to remind yourself that these are merely men we watch, not miracles. Colin Lynch spent much of the half, his face obscured beneath a crimson fountain, yet no hint of lightness in his stride. Brian Quinn, Brian Lohan, Seanie McMahon and Anthony Daly all hurled like they were protecting family.

But Tipp squeezed and crowded them until something snapped.

Their backs were wolfish, their midfield a blur of Dunne's wrists and Leahy's rolling shoulders, their attack looked tight and primed with murderous intent. Sure, the goals were a Declan Ryan penalty and - by all accounts - a questionable Shelly roll. Sure, Alan Markham hit a post at the far end and Davy Forde blazed another goal chance over.

But no-one quibbled here because to do so would have been to miss the story.

TIPP won because, on this day, they found within the kind of power that was once a Loughnane patent.

Centre-back, David Kennedy, observed ``Honest to God, I think people kind of forget that other teams train as well. Like, we didn't spend the winter sitting down on our arses watching tv while Clare were slogging it away.

``Whatever step Clare took, we were taking the same step. And you can guarantee Cork are as well.

``You'd wait a lifetime to win a game like that but, at the end of the day, there's no trophy on the table. It'll be interesting to see how lads like myself and Eamonn (Corcoran), Paul (Ormonde), John (Carroll) and Philip (Maher) react to playing in a Munster final.

``'Cos it's new to us. We're going to find out about ourselves.''

So the old order resumes on July 2, the first Tipp-Cork Munster final since that double-barrelled epic of '91. Clare, the team of the nineties, have been pushed from the mountain-top, but English was not inclined to sing a mocking lullaby.

For all the thunder, there is respect between these counties too. ``You know I was sitting at home last Sunday, watching Cork and Limerick,'' revealed Nicky.

``And one of the Cork players who was central to their All-Ireland winning was talking about how he had just played only his sixth Championship game. And it struck me that Clare played seven in '98 and six in '99 for little reward really.

``They're a great team, but they've come a very hard road. And that was the key to what happened out there today. We were fresher, we had a lot fewer miles on the clock than Clare.

``This was a big hurdle for our boys mentally. They had to be strong. But they were and they went from the gun.''

ALL thus was laughter and relief in the Tipp room, Shelly musing about the ``bullet'' that reputedly thought twice before crossing the goal-line, Declan Ryan sighing playfully about the swollen ankle that may keep him out of the Cork game.

``It's sore right now,'' grinned the big Clonoulty man. ``But I'll feel no pain tonight.''

All now was superfluity and smiles, the tyranny of Clare gone frisking into history. ``Destiny never closes her accounts,'' wrote Wilde long before Championship made live TV.

Maybe not. But she closes doors and memories. In Cork yesterday, English's Tipp came prepared for the coliseum. Primed to win back old feelings, old certainties.

Primed to unleash Hell.

MY PLAYER RATINGS: Tipperary - B Cummins 8, P Ormonde 8, P Maher 9, M Ryan 8, J Carroll 9, D Kennedy 8, E Corcoran 8, T Dunne 8, J Leahy 9, M O;Leary 8, D Ryan 7, B O'Meara 7, E O'Neill 8, P Shelly 7, P O'Brien 6. Subs - E Enright 6, L Cahill 6, M Ryan and G Maguire (not on long enough to be rated).

Clare - D Fitzgerald 8, B Quinn 8, B Lohan 8, F Lohan 7, L Doyle 5, S McMahon 9, A Daly 8, O Baker 6, C Lynch 8, J O'Connor 7, E Flannery 7, A Markham 5, G Quinn 7, E Taaffe 5, N Gilligan 7. Subs - D Forde 7, R Woods 7, B Murphy 5, K Ralph 6.

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