If you could win a game based on how much it means, Tipperary would be unbackable favourites for tomorrow’s Munster football final.
For Kerry, this is just another routine game in their quest for another All-Ireland. But this is the biggest game in the careers of all the Tipperary players.
Granted, we have won a minor All-Ireland and come close to winning an U21 title too, but nothing beats preparing for a Munster senior final.
Two finals in seven days has the county buzzing.
It is 14 years since Tipp made a football decider, drawing with Cork in Thurles and losing the replay in Cork the week after. So none of this squad have experienced anything like this. How they handle the hype will be important.
Their phones will be hopping and they can’t get side-tracked. Liam Kearns, who has experience of Munster final, will be conscious that they prepare for the game, not the occasion.
Personally, I embraced everything that came with playing in big games. These days are why we put our lives on hold. Winning an All-Ireland was only a dream but a Munster title was a goal every Tipperary footballer believed in. We came damn close in ‘98 and ‘02.
We played both our Munster finals in Thurles and my abiding memory is of warming up in Dr Morris Park, next to Semple. Seeing and hearing the crowds in the build-up set the heart racing. There were nerves, even fear. Would everything go to plan? On the other hand, you couldn’t wait to burst onto the pitch and soak it all up.
We have to relish it tomorrow. Too often in big games, Tipp have been too conservative, worrying about the final score before a ball has been kicked. I firmly believe Tipp are not on Kerry’s radar so I would love to see our lads, while obviously sticking to their game-plan, loosening the shackles and having a cut off them.
Darragh Ó Sé said recently Kerry were always keen to give Tipperary a good reason to stick to the hurling. For me, this was an acknowledgement that Tipperary had the potential to be a banana skin for Kerry. Darragh and his midfield partner always knew they had their work cut out for them against Brian Burke and Derry Foley. We came close to them and they knew that.
I wonder how much work was done to coax Steven O’Brien, another midfield giant, back into the setup. Liam Kearns mentioned the door to the panel was open and Steven’s lack of involvement so far with the hurlers.
I wouldn’t normally agree with parachuting a player back in, but it can also give a panel fresh impetus. In 1996, Seamus McCarthy called me into the panel as a young fella three weeks before we played Kerry and I started. So managers sometimes have to make big, ruthless calls in the drive for success, even if they don’t sit pretty with everyone.
Tipperary need a 70-minute performance. A 10-minute loss of focus almost cost them dearly against Cork, and Kerry always punish those lapses.
Kerry will probably push up and go zonal for the Tipperary kickouts, forcing Evan Comerford to kick long, backing themselves to win the midfield battle. Tipp’s kickout strategy must be on the money tomorrow. It sprang the odd leak against Cork.
This is the springboard for all Kerry attacks and with the ability, pace and talent they have in their forward division, the Tipp defence could have a busy day.
I feel Kieran Donaghy’s starting position will have a huge bearing on the game. From a Tipp perspective, I would much prefer to see him out around the middle as he has caused us massive damage at the edge of the square in the past. Tipp don’t play like Dublin or Tyrone, accumulating bodies around him and spoiling him in the air, mopping up the breaks. He’d worry me close to goal.
Whatever the talk of a player exodus, Tipp have serious ability throughout the team, from Comerford in goal to Quinlivan and Sweeney in the full-forward line. Kevin O’Halloran gave an exhibition of free-taking against Cork so if Tipp run at the Kerry defence with pace and create frees he will pop them over all day. Very similar to what Bryan Sheehan does for Kerry. Acheson and Hannigan will need to get a foothold in midfield for us to have any chance, failure will invite trouble for their defence.
Most of all, Tipp must ask questions. Must not be purely reactive. If they are to become Munster champions for the first time since 1935, they must take risks. Worry about the scoreboard when the game is over.