By Jim O’Sullivan
ALMOST 20 years after beginning the task of putting Tipperary hurling back on the map, Babs Keating is back at the helm again.
With typical frankness, he admits that the early season games in the Waterford Crystal competition have not been over-encouraging in terms of unearthing new talent. But, with the zest which has characterised his career as player and coach, he will drive on over the coming weeks with the ambition of coming up with a settled side.
The immediate target will be a quarter-final place on March 9 in the Allianz League, which starts for them on Sunday with a game against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds.
"That’s what we will be striving for. We would hope to have 13 of our first 15 playing that day - if we get that far."
To do that, he reckons they will have to win their home games with Galway and Kilkenny.
Keating led Tipperary to their breakthrough win over Cork in the Munster final replay of 1987 and to All-Ireland success in 1989 and 1991. After walking away in May of ‘94 following the surprise defeat by Clare in the first round of the championship, he managed Laois for a spell (taking them to their last appearance in a League semi-final). Next, he got involved with Offaly in the autumn of 1997.
His departure from there was very controversial, following his infamous "sheep" remarks after the Leinster final defeat by Kilkenny. But, Offaly went on to win the All-Ireland, managed by Galway man Michael Bond.
In more recent times he had been involved with UCD, which means he has been away from the Tipperary scene for a long time. His appointment was questioned in some quarters, but he has been encouraged by the welcome he has received from supporters.
"It’s a bonus for us that we are accepted, but at the end of the day we still have to put a team out that’s going to match what Tipperary supporters understand Tipperary hurling to be.
"There have been days which were heartening and days that were not too encouraging. I would love to see a few lads aged 19 and 20 coming through - but they are not there."
His former protege, John Leahy, is one of his selectors, the other being former Sarsfields star Tom Barry. He says that Donie Nealon and Nicky English will be on hand to help out when the time comes.
The new management have to come up with four or five players, starting with a centre-back - which he admits is going to be very difficult.
"There are a few names emerging, but not too many," he said.
They also need to strength their half-forward line, while "making Micheal Webster a better player" is another priority.
"He was playing well last year, but not scoring (enough)," he said.
"At the moment, we have the bones of the team which won the 2001 All-Ireland. When I took over in 1986, we were looking for 11 or 12 players.
"Until the heat comes on you won’t know how the players we have in mind will respond. The heat has come on already for a few players and we have been disappointed. In the games we played against Limerick and the LIT we had good performances and some poor performances. We still have 24-25 names being ticked off."
He says former captain Thomas Dunne "knows where he stands", adding: "It’s a question of when he feels good enough and healthy enough to return to training."
Yesterday, Dunne confirmed he has made no decision about his future, saying he appreciated the management was leaving the door open for him.
One of Keating’s regrets is that one of the county’s more promising young players, Shane Long, has been "lost" to soccer in England.
"He’s one young lad who would be part of our set-up. I hope he gets tired of it over there."
Whatever he feels about Cork’s prospects this year - "as the records show, consecutive All-Irelands are hard to win, not to mind three-in-a-row" - he agrees they are in a stronger position than most other teams.
"I would honestly say, you could name 14 or 15 of the players who are going to play against Clare. That’s a huge advantage."