A Diamond Performance
Myself and two good friends were counted amongst the early swallows in Cavan last weekend. Permission from the relevant war offices had been sought and granted well in advance, so to ensure we made the Sunday 2 o’clock throw-in, we headed for Cavan on Friday afternoon: Following a few stops along the way to stretch the legs and backs, we eventually arrived at our destination just in time for the tea. Initial enquiries suggested that The Top of The Town bar was “the place for a good pint” which was a young persons polite way of telling us “that’s the place more suited to your age group”.
In was here we fell into the company of some extremely knowledgeable Breffni folk. The first thing you notice about Cavan people is they really are rightly proud of their beautiful county. Even though I never asked the question, on more than one occasion I was informed that there are 365 lakes in Cavan, one for every day of the year.
However, I fear they love gaelic football “not wisely but too well”. Their passion for the game is such, that their mood for the week will be dictated by the result of a game at the weekend. That little character flaw aside, it must be said that the Cavan people are astonishingly good company and the craic we had with them was well above the national average. They could see nothing but a Cavan win on Sunday and to my shame, I agreed with them. In my defence I had been in Wexford Park the week before and even though we won I was still psychologically scarred from watching the performance.
Some people will tell you that to write off a Tipperary football team is as fool hardy as casting aspersions on the Gospels of Matthew. Leaving Kingspan Breffni Park on Sunday at 4pm, the title of the 1980’s Jim Diamond hit, “I Should Have Known Better” was ringing in my head. From start to finish David Power’s men had put on a dominant performance, running out well deserved 1.11 to 1.07 winners to put themselves in pole position for a quick return to Division 3 football next year.
Readers of this column will know the importance I place on the throw-in and its place in setting the tone for the game. Win it or kill is the mantra. Conal Kennedy wins it and Mark Russell risked life and limb in getting to the breaking ball. He takes a heavy knock to the head but the tone is set. Tipperary are not going to take a backwards step today. Conor Sweeney is fouled as he tries to collect a long Jimmy Feehan pass but picks himself up to pop over the resulting free. Two minutes gone and Cavan have yet to touch the ball.
Cavan win the kick-out and move the ball quickly through the lines to put Caoimhín O’Reilly straight through on goal. The outrushing Michael O’Reilly got his angles spot on and the Cavan man had no option but to fist over the bar. If they had seat belts in Breffni Park we would have had to fasten them. Already you could tell that this was going to be a roller coaster of a game. In the sixth minute a Cavan free looked to be heading over the bar but Michael O’Reilly pulled it down from a low flying cloud and the ball is worked up the field to Mark Russell. From a difficult angle on the right side of the field, the Lattin-Cullen man posted the ball over the bar.
Tipperary suffer a blow two minutes later. Conor Moynagh mis-controls a ball while attempting to pick it up. Bill Maher pounced on the mistake but in trying to win the ball he pushed the Cavan man in the back and they both hit the ground. There was really nothing in the incident but linesman David Coldrick advised the referee to produce a black card. I couldn’t have been more astonished it he had advised him to produce a Colt 45. Bill and Coldrick have a history going back to the All Ireland semi-final of 2016. Referees don’t forget. Luckily, the punishment did Tipperary or Bill no harm. He was back to his brilliant best when he was released back into the wild following his 10 minutes in captivity.
Another top class kick pass from Robbie Kiely finds Sean O’Connor who slots over from a difficult angle to make it 0-3 to 0-1 after 15 minutes. But Cavan are not unbeaten in the league by accident and show their ability with back to back points from Gerard Smith and Jason McLoughlin to level the game. Tipperary’s Teddy Doyle may have been born in the Kingdom but he makes a defenders life hell with his work-rate. It’s his strength in the tackle that impresses me the most. He would be a useful man to have on the scene in Cheltenham if a horse bolted. He is not short on football ability either as he demonstrated in the 20th minute with the point of the game from 50 yards.
One minute later, the goal that Tipperary’s play so richly deserved arrived courtesy of Conor Sweeney. This was the 43rd goal of Sweeney’s remarkable career making him the top goal scorer in the country since 2010 and by the end of the game he had brought his career tally to 43 goals and 424 points. But Conor brings more than just scores to this Tipperary team. He is an inspiring captain and a brilliant ambassador for Tipperary football. Excellent build up play from Teddy Doyle, Robbie Kiley and Jack Kennedy put the lively Mikey O’Shea through on goal. As the defensive cover arrived, O’Shea kept his head and squared across the goal to Sweeney. There was still a bit of work to be done but the Ballyporeen man side-stepped his man before firing a rocket to the front of the net.
A Sean O’Connor free made it 1-05 to 0.03 after 25 minutes. By now Cavan are struggling to break down the Tipperary defensive system and their reluctance to hit the long quick kick-pass sees them moving the ball sideways and backwards much to the frustration of their supporters. Having watched Tipperary do the same in Wexford the week before, I feel their pain. To be fair the Tipperary defensive system is hard to break down. It has Charlie McGeever’s footprints stamped all over it. There are times when I doubt the Pope’s infallibility but I never doubt Charlie’s knowledge of defensive tactics.
Tipperary were hit a severe body blow with the final play of the first half. A fine Kevin Fahey run and pass put Shane O’Connell in behind the defence, albeit at a tight angle. Shane’s attempted fisted point came back off the post. Cavan worked the ball down the field and found Caoimhín O’Reilly in a parcel of space. He drove a low shot to the bottom corner of the net to make the score Tipperary 1-05 Cavan 1-04 . On the kick-out the referee Kieran Eannetta signalled it was time for the Jaffa Cakes. The Tipperary supporters were shell shocked. It seemed “their purse was empty, their golden deeds all spent”. After dominating the game for 35 minutes, Tipperary now only led by a single point and Cavan would have the aid of what many agreed was a four point wind breathing into their backs in the second half.
On Saturday afternoon, we fell into the company of Cavan manager, Mickey Graham. An officer and a gentleman, he married well with his in-laws hailing from Drom-Inch. He expressed worries about Cavan’s lack of goals during this years league and Tipperary’s defensive system being very organised. Mickey’s worries were now my only hope.
I am not privy to what was said at half-time in the Tipperary dressing room, but judging by the way we went about our business in the second half, I wouldn’t be surprised if William Wallace delivered the team talk while William Tell took the forwards for a quick coaching session.
Tipperary again win the throw-in and set the tone. A Mark Russell point in the second minute of the half had Mr Tell nodding in approval. A Patrick Lynch free for Cavan was followed by pointed Tipperary frees from Conor Sweeney and Jack Kennedy as once again Tipperary showed that they were not prepared to take a backward step in this game.
Lady Luck had taken Tipperary by the hand in Wexford Park the week before and she made the trip to Cavan on Sunday to wrap her shawl around us once more. A high ball into the Tipperary square was added to by Patrick Lynch but his effort came back off the crossbar and into the loving arms of Jimmy Feehan. Speaking of Jimmy Feehan, it is great to see him injury free and back to his best. Jimmy is an old fashioned defender in the Mick Lyons mould but possesses that gift that all defenders need, an inbuilt early warning system that makes radar seem out of date.
Bill Maher had obviously listened in on William Tell’s coaching session as he delivered a 40 yard arrow straight into the hands of Sweeney, who marked and popped over the point. Two minutes later a brilliant Cavan counter attack found them 3 v 1 inside the Tipperary 13m line. Gearóid McKiernan had options but decided to shoot himself. Man of the Match, Michael O’Reilly channelled his inner David de Gea and stopped the goal bound effort with his feet. Against the wind Tipperary legs were tiring but their hearts were still beating strong. Stephen Quirke, Willie Eviston and Eanna McBride were introduced to help see out the game. All three performed magnificently.
A Conor Sweeney free was followed by two pointed Cavan frees from McKiernan before the fabulous Kennedy boys combined and Jack added Tipperary’s final point of the game in the 63rd minute. It was backs to the wall stuff from here to the end for Tipperary. A slick Cavan move saw James Smith one on one with O’Reilly but once again the Commercials net minder was up to the task.
While we are on the subject of Clonmel Commerials net minders, Sunday was a big day in the life of young Shane Ryan, who was sub goalkeeper in Cavan. Just 17 years of age, the U20 panellist and Minor Footballer of the Year got a late call up following a midweek injury to Kuba Beben. Son of former keeper Philly, Paul Fitzgerald probably put it best on Tipp FM commentary when he said that Shane has his father’s ability but his mother Anna’s temperament. He wasn’t called upon but having seen him play on a number of occasions I would have no fear of him if he was called to action.
In the final minutes, Cavan huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow the Tipperary house down. Their final chance of the game fell to Gearóid McKiernan. As he pulled the trigger, Willie Eviston threw himself full length to produce an amazing block and clearance. Maybe I had the wrong Jim Diamond song in my head and I should have been humming “Hi Ho Silver”
When Kieran Eannetta signalled full stop Tipperary were worthy four point winners meaning that home wins in our final two games against Carlow and London will secure promotion and a League Final date in Croke Park on the 2nd April.
Football eh………….bloody hell. By the time we reached the car the heart was back in sinus rhythm and somehow the journey home seemed shorter.