Who are Tipperary right now? What are they trying to be?

Cork keeper Anthony Nash races off his line to knock the ball away from Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan during the 2018 Munster SHC clash at Semple Stadium, back in May. Our columnist believes the Premier men need a spark: can Callanan provide it? Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Today readers will be renewing acquaintance with Pat, who’s appeared on these pages before. Pat is an estimable young man from south Tipperary whose affection for Liverpool FC is exceeded only by his love for the blue and gold and indeed for hurling in general. He is a prime example of our old friend, the man on the Clonmel omnibus, albeit not nearly as ancient as some of the passengers on said conveyance.

Certainly, not being of an age to remember any silverware prior to 1987 in Killarney, he’s not the type who stamps his foot and demands an All-Ireland every couple of years.

Pat, who does indeed exist and has not been conveniently invented for the purposes of an intro, simply wants Tipperary to hurl as well as they can in any given year. If this leads to the MacCarthy Cup, great. If it doesn’t, grand.

So how is he feeling right now? Here’s how. Depressed after the defeat by Kilkenny: yet another failure in a tight finish with that crowd. Mildly irked by the freetaking situation, which he reckons has done no favours for either Seamus Callanan or Jason Forde.

Uneasy about the lack of pace in defence and attack. Wondering if Liam Sheedy himself might be taken aback at how far off the leaders Tipp have fallen. Reasonably optimistic for the long haul on the basis that Eamon O’Shea will give them a style of play they can hang their hat on and that hard ground will suit the first-touch players. Pessimistic for the short term, though.

“We seem to have a pile of players who would beautifully decorate a Kilkenny forward line, or Limerick’s, but no Kyle Hayes or Gearoid Hegarty or Daniel Kearney figures. Guys willing to do the donkey work and link the play. If we were a soccer team you’d sack the chief scout for putting together such a crazily unbalanced squad.”

This is Pat. You may agree with him, you may not. But all told he’s living proof of Nicky English’s observation from many moons ago as to the manner in which Tipperary supporters “get twitchy” if the outline of the championship XV hasn’t emerged by the end of the National League. Semple Stadium a fortnight ago can only have had their nerve endings doing the tarantella.

The bare figures did not seduce.

The 0-17 that Tipperary hit on an afternoon when Cork hit 2-21. (Yes, yes. No two games are the same. Nonetheless.) The attendance of 8,723 that intimated the locals were not burdened by grandiose expectations.

The quality of the fare offered that justified their reservations, with the events of injury-time serving to write the bottom line and define the afternoon. Winning ugly would have been fine, all the more so in view of the identity of Tipperary’s opponents. Losing ugly offered no shred of consolation. An outsider may ask how big a deal it really was.

The hosts were a point ahead with 90 seconds left in injury-time, whereupon they were upended by a point from Richie Hogan, doing what he’s done against Tipperary from time immemorial, and a free for hand on ball on ground, an award that could as easily have gone the other way. Temporarily galling, yes, but hey. These things happen.

It was February. These things happen in February. Chill. The broader question is one of identity. We used to know who Tipperary were. Dazzling on their good days, the most entrancing of them being the 2016 All-Ireland final, and unworldly — “brittle” is unfair — off them.

They put it up to Kilkenny time and again, an achievement that required a degree of resilience they were never given due credit for, yet were also touched off by Galway and Limerick in photo finishes.

But who are Tipperary right now? Who and what are they trying to be? Do they know themselves? What kind of game are they trying to promulgate? And will they get there in time for mid-May?

Other teams we know from their MO, like criminals after the heist. Cork are skilful. Clare are handy. Galway are big. Kilkenny are unbreakable, even — or especially — when they lose. Limerick are champions. Tipperary aren’t anything. It may take them two seasons of Sheedy before they are something.

On his return as manager O’Shea needed a full year to get himself back up to speed, remember, and for all of the apparatus and apparatchiks with which he’s surrounded himself Sheedy has been gone from the inter-county scene for a lot longer than O’Shea was. Who’s their number one goalie? Who’s the full-back? Where does Padraic Maher go? Who’ll be one of the midfielders? Who’ll be the other midfielder?

Above all, can they succeed where they failed so abjectly last season and find the optimum method of transferring clean ball from number 1 to number 15? To numbers 14 and 15, indeed. Cerberus, the fearsome guard of Hades, had three heads; Callanan and John McGrath do not but they still comprise a ferocious two-headed entity that will terrorise opposing full-back lines once fed and watered.

Seamus Callanan.
Seamus Callanan.

One caveat re the notion that O’Shea will wave his magic wand and all will be well up front again, by the by. It presupposes his ability to work the same trick with a different set of forwards.

The previous set had Lar Corbett’s channel-opening, defence-splitting sheer raw pace, from which nearly everything flowed. As against that, the prospect that last year’s under-21 team will in time disgorge a quantity of unsung but quietly doughty types of a stamp that the seniors could do with has been overlooked. Tipperary have had enough dazzle for one decade. And at fraught times like these, Michael Ryan’s pensée after victory in 2016 about the tendency of Tipp fans to oscillate wildly between the extremes demands to be resurrected.

“We’re never either as good as we think we are or as bad as we think we are.”

The waters in Munster in 2019, however, will be infested with more and bigger sharks than they were in 2018 and Brendan Cummins, as though unconsciously channelling Springsteen, hit the nail on the head on Allianz League Sunday after the Kilkenny match when asserting that Tipp needed a spark. Something. Anything. From somewhere. Anywhere. No more dancing in the dark. W E know what Cork long for from this league.

Another attacking receiver to prevent Seamus Harnedy yet again being obliged to photocopy himself; a dash of meanness in defence; a deeper bench. How many of the items on their shopping list they tick off will not become clear till high summer.

Whereas the past two iterations of the National League threw up live championship contenders in, successively, Galway and Limerick, the no-relegation clause means the 2019 edition will leave more questions unanswered than otherwise. Still, Cork have coherence, as well they might in their third season with John Meyler around the place, a man operating in more trying circumstances than Sheedy or any of his other counterparts are.

One doesn’t have to be an apostle of new age stuff to believe in the power, or at any rate the existence, of positive and negative energy. What kind of energy do you imagine has been bouncing around Ballintemple lately? Financial crises, a rotten pitch, dealing with officialdom: away from the white lines Meyler cannot be having it easy, and that’s even before he gets around to trying to find a wingman for Harnedy.

As that noted follower of the red jersey Karl Marx remarked of the Cork County Board: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as another Páirc Uí Chaoimh overspend.”

So there you have it. Cork going all right. Tipperary not going all right and in need of a spark.

As for our man Pat, he’s quietly hopeful — not reasonably optimistic; quietly hopeful — that one of his teams will end up with some silverware before the year is out. Liverpool.

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