New Beginnings for Tipperary Football
The Roman God Janus, who lends his name to the month of January, is associated with beginnings and endings, and is represented by a double-faced head, eyes pointing in opposite directions. For this piece, Janus fits our purposes perfectly as we face in two directions: towards the McGrath Cup just past and towards the National Football League which is almost upon us.
Brian Fox’s decision to put his boots in the cubby under the stairs means that David Power and his management team have to go about replacing Tipperary’s most consistent performer over the past decade. That will be no easy task as legends are not easily replaced. Their mood won’t have improved with the news that Michael Quinlivan, Emmet Moloney and Padraic Looram are taking a hiatus. It was now clear that a major rebuild is needed. When Tipperary got relegated to Division 4 last year, many of us felt that the sun would never rise again but it may well prove to be a blessing in disguise. Playing in the bottom tier should give us the breathing space to blend the right mix of experience and youth, develop a broader squad and nurture the next generation of Tipperary footballers.
David Power has left no pebble unturned in his search for new players. Since training resumed at the start of the year, he has invited over sixty players into the set-up and early indications from training and the games played so far would suggest that a number of those players have put their hands up for a spot on the panel. By the time the referee signalled full stop in our opening McGrath Cup game against Limerick, 14 players had made their senior football debuts for Tipperary and management will have been happy with a lot of what they saw.
Often a game takes it hue from the weather and a McGrath Cup game at the beginning of January in a wet and windy Rathkeale is not the most attractive of fixtures and yet while this game may have lacked championship or even league intensity, it made entertaining viewing. Despite the conditions, the Tipperary players all looked like they were enjoying their football, which is a testament to the atmosphere that obviously exists within the camp. When we went three points down with 68 minutes on the clock, I had given up on any hope of victory. But luckily for Tipperary I wasn’t playing. D.H. Lawrence said the only tragedy is loss of heart and he was on the money. The Tipperary players never lost heart and rattled off the last four points of the game to snatch victory in the last stride.
Sean O’Connor was Tipperary’s best forward on the day finishing the game with 1-07 of which 1-01 came from play. Sean may not have the speed of a greyhound but once he gets the ball in his hand from play or frees, the wise scoreboard operator reaches for the remote control.
Of the newcomers, Eanna McBride, a graduate of the J.K.Brackens academy, looks like he is from central casting and went about his business with the minimum of fuss. He is a difficult chap to overawe.
Aherlow’s Mark Russell also put in a solid performance at midfield and later at full forward where his very presence spooked Limerick into dropping men back which created space further out the field for others to ply their trade. Grangemockler’s Leon Kennedy is not long out of swaddling clothes but he did very little wrong and a good bit right.
Another starting debutant, Ciaran Cannon, was having a fine outing until injury put a halt to his gallop near the end of the first half. His replacement Jordon Moloney didn’t put a small toe wrong when introduced.
Jack Kennedy of J.K.Brackens who made his appearance just after the second water break got on the end of two super Tipperary moves and held his nerve to score the final points of the game and ensure a Tipperary victory. Six months ago, he was helping his father Murt, the Tipperary kit-man, hang up the gear in the dressing room before training, now he is wearing the gear. Roy of the Rovers would approve.
Space prevents me from mentioning every newcomer but all can be satisfied with their days work. Of course, with so many debutants it’s easy to forget the more experienced players and the simple truth is that the new men couldn’t have performed as well as they did without the experienced heads guiding them through. Jimmy Feehan was his usual self, honest, unspectacular and effective and if you asked me to nominate especial heroes I would name Colm O’Shaughnessy, who yet again looked a master of his brief and Shane Foley who had a fine game both as an architect and a maintenance man.
Three days later it was onto Kerry in Templetouhy where Jack O’Connor obviously failed the read the memo about the McGrath Cup being an opportunity to take a look at new players. Jack selected a team which will probably be close to his championship starting side later in the year. He has received a lot of criticism for introducing Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage as second half substitutes despite both having played a Sigerson Cup game earlier in the day. I suspect that criticism won’t bother O’Connor as he probably thinks he did them a favour in allowing them to play Sigerson Cup on the day of a Kerry game.
If you are coaching a team this year you could do worse than to get your hands on a video of this match to observe the Kerry movement and use of the ball. It was a joy to watch. Every Kerry player is extremely comfortable on the ball and knows what goes where and why. But you would expect that from a county where football is almost a religion. I recalled a story I heard about legendary Kerry footballer Jackie Lyne. When asked why football was played in every corner of the county, Jackie replied “with those bastard mountains behind us and that bitch of an ocean in front of us, we have to do something”
From a Tipperary perspective, our year won’t be judged on the result of an experimental side playing an experienced Kerry outfit and yet despite the result David Power and his cabinet will have taken some positives from the performance. Defensively the set up looks solid and while the transition from defence to attack still looks like a work in progress, it appears to be heading in the right direction.
No doubt the panel will have to be cut for the start of the league and I don’t envy the management having to make those calls. As a player there is nothing worse than getting the phone call thanking you for your service.
Finally, Margaret Thatcher’s name doesn’t get trotted out too often in Gaelic Football discussions but her famous quote “If you want something said ask a man, if you want something done ask a woman” came to mind when I heard the news that former Cork Ladies Football goalkeeper and eight times All Ireland medal winner, Elaine Harte had been invited into the Tipperary Senior Football set up as goalkeeping coach.
Being appointed goalkeeping coach with an inter-county football set up is akin to being appointed Minister for Health. You will get little credit when things go right but your head is on the chopping block when things go wrong.
I have been critical of the Tipperary kick-out strategy over the past few of years. In fact, actually calling it a “kick-out strategy” could put you in danger of being sued under The Trade Description Act. The non-experts will blame the goalkeeper, they always do, but the truth is that in Evan Comerford, Michael O’Reilly and Kuba Beben , we have three of the county’s finest exponents in kicking a dead ball. Their kick-out stats for their clubs are superb and all three take long range frees with accuracy that William Tell would be proud of. So with that in mind you have to ask yourself, why can’t they find a blue and gold shirt more regularly when they play for Tipperary?
In sport, the obvious answer is nearly always the correct answer. The keepers were being hampered by a kick-out strategy that was too slow, too complicated and ultimately too costly as time and time again we coughed up scores from our own kick-out. Too often over the past few years we saw kick-out stats that showed us winning under 60% of our own kick-out. That a stat which is totally unacceptable at this level or indeed any level.
It is against that background that Elaine Harte takes over. Early impressions from the first two games in the McGrath Cup is that she has quickened up the kick-out and stripped it right back to basics. She has looked at the goalkeepers strengths and built her strategy around them which resulted in Tipperary recording an 80% retention rate in our opening McGrath Cup game against Limerick. I’m sure every Tipperary football supporter will wish Elaine well in her new role and if what I’ve seen so far is a taste of things to come, I am confident that as she gets her feet a bit further under the table, her time with the Tipperary goalkeepers will be a success.
I’m excited enough by what I’ve seen from Tipperary so far this year to think that our stay in Division 4 will be a short one but I’m also around long enough to know that when you take things for granted in football it can often come back to bite you in the Janus.