I will admit to a tinge of disappointment when the league fixtures were released. I fancied a trip to London, a city that has everything you could wish for except good porter. However, after the win over Carlow game in Round 6 of the National Football League, I was glad that Round 7 was in Tom Semple’s Field and not Ruislip as it might ease our passage to promotion and a League Final appearance in Croke Park.
Over the past few weeks, listeners to Ronan Quirke’s Extra Time programme on Tipp FM, will have heard the knowledgeable pharmacist ask his various guests “if, on Christmas Day last year, I offered you a home win against London to secure promotion, would you have taken it?” The answer was obvious but in the days leading up to the game I wondered if we could Ronan to pop into the back room and concoct some sort of magic potion that the Tipperary players could ingest on match day. That might seem drastic but such was the importance of this match, I wanted to leave nothing to chance.
Tipperary GAA supporters, myself included, are prone to indulging in reminiscing and speculation. We tend to look romantically on the past, think the present lacks drama and declare that the future looks bleak. The Aborigines have one word to describe the past, present and the future—it is called Dreamtime. In Dreamtime the future folds back on the past to become the present reality —-we could all take a lesson from the Aborigines.
Since Christmas, Tipperary football supporters have bemoaned the loss, for various reasons, of players like Philip Austin, Brian Fox, Alan Campbell, Michael Quinlivan, Liam Casey, Evan Comerford and Emmet Moloney to name but a few. We look back and think we will never see their likes again.
But the present reality is that despite the loss of those players, in some areas we have a deeper pool. The midfield position is a good example. Mark Russell and Conal Kennedy are playing splendidly and yet if both disappeared off the face of the earth, we have Stephen Quirke and Sean O’Connell who could slot into their position and not be overawed. For good measure we also have Paudie Feehan and Steven O’Brien who are still in the repair shop.
After a draw in Waterford on the opening day and a hammering at home to Leitrim on the second day, even the most optimistic support could not look at the future and see us sitting on the upper branches of the tree by the end of the league. But again the present reality is that Tipperary have some fine footballers, who, in their first season together as a group, have secured promotion and a date in Croke Park. After those opening two games, this could be considered the greatest comeback since Bobby Ewing reappeared in the shower.
I am not going overboard when I say that because last Saturday evening in Thurles, this new Tipperary team went about their business in a professional manner and were splendid. They made a London outfit look no more than sparring partners. The Londoners employed more sweepers than the county council, which was a pity from a spectators viewpoint as it makes for a hard watch. It’s a tactic that was also grossly unfair to the London players because when they did reveal their true self in the second quarter, paradoxically they looked superior to Tipperary, but it was little more than a flash of pride.
From the start Tipperary took control and by the 20th minute the led by 8 points (1.06 to 0.01) which allowed them the luxury to take risks, which will no doubt keep Tommy Toomey and his video analysis team busy during the week, but in reality weren’t risks at all.
Just like in the previous four games, Tipperary had heroes in every nook and cranny of the field. In the forward line, Teddy Doyle continues to make friends and confound foes. Himself and Robbie Kiely fit like the proverbial hand and glove down the left side of the field. It’s a relationship which will continue to blossom the more they play together. In our full forward line Conor Sweeney and Sean O’Connor ensured that the man on the electronic couldn’t go for a tea break while Mikey O’Shea, one of the finds of the year, was as sharp as hawk in spring. Martin Keogh got through a lot of unpaid and non-pensionable work and as always Jack Kennedy was the puppeteer who pulled the strings.
Goalkeeper Michael O’Reilly goes on more adventures than Huckleberry Finn and before the end of this year I would not be surprised to see him score from play. The purists, or those who pretend to be purists, do not approve of this modern phenomenon where goalkeepers come off their line to join in the open play but I think the pros outweigh the cons. I might not be so understanding if he wasn’t doing his main job of stopping shots and retaining kick-outs as well as he is. He has now gone two and a half games without conceding a goal, making some big saves along the way and has an 83% retention rate on kick-outs over the same period.
I am of the belief that if you don’t dominate the middle third of the field then your house is built on quagmire and the secret to our success over the past five games has been our dominance of this area of the field. Tipperary’s greatest ever midfielder, Brian Burke, will tell you that if your midfield pairing don’t at least break even in their private battles then you are facing an uphill task. In the last few games our midfield pairing have more than broke even. Conal Kennedy, is not a man you would get to prune your roses but if your garden was overgrown, then there would be no better man to get stuck in and make a clearing in the jungle. His work rate is exceptional, he is dominating the skies and has performed magnificently in the last few games. Saturday night was no exception.
But it’s the performances of the man from Lattin, a village that never reared a fool, that has been the talk of the Tipperary football fraternity over the past few weeks. Mark Russell is in the form of his young life. The timing of his runs into the scoring zone are being handsomely rewarded and his 1:01 last Saturday brought his total in the last four games to 1:07 from play. It is an unbelievable return for a midfielder.
Colm O’Shaughnessy’s move to centre back has paid dividends both for Colm and the team. He patrols the middle with the alertness of a parish priest at a 1950’s céile. His two curates on either side, Kevin Fahey and Robbie Kiely are proof that the old adage is true, form is temporary, class is permanent. Their breaks from defence to attack as so smooth it looks like they are on a magic carpet while everyone else is floundering on land.
I have spoken about our defensive system before which seems to be a zonal system and it is suiting our full back line of Shane O’Connell, Jimmy Feehan and Jack Harney down to the ground. As much as anyone, this line can take the plaudits for our appearance in Croke Park this weekend. They have being magnificent all year.
And so we are off to Dublin for a league final on Saturday afternoon. I will admit after the Leitrim I didn’t see that coming. I don’t think David Power did either. I watched him during that Leitrim game and he looked like a man who would welcome an earthquake so as he might have a hole to hide in. But he isn’t Tipperary’s most successful manager by accident. After that game, himself and his cabinet team looked deep into their souls, made the required changes and they rest is history. Bizarrely, just a few weeks later, if there is a smidgen of unease in their minds as they head to Croke Park this weekend, it will be because of increased expectations but that is now our present reality and this week at least it was Dream Time for Tipperary football fans.