DECLAN BROWNE: Steven O’Brien’s return fuels Tipp feelgood factor

The evenings are that bit brighter, all the hurt and disappointment of last year is long forgotten, hope is back in the hearts of supporters in every corner of the country. There is a road to some kind of glory for everyone. This could be the year.

The league is back.

With due respect to the pre-season competitions, they don’t capture the imagination. Dublin put out a third string team in the O’Byrne cup for the second year in a row. Tipperary and Kerry opted out of this year’s McGrath Cup which shows what they think of the competition. 

It never appealed that much to me either when I was playing — it was always a struggle to get players together due to injuries or Sigerson/Fitzgibbon commitments.

But we can get our teeth into the league. Tomorrow evening, Liam Kearns brings his Tipperary troops to the brand new Páirc Uí Chaoimh to play Cork in the opening round of Division 2. With it being the first game of a good double-bill a big crowd is expected.

Despite disappointment against Armagh in last year’s championship, promotion at the Orchard’s expense kept the feelgood factor alive in Tipperary football. 

Tipp have made huge strides in recent years and plying their trade in this division, against quality opposition, will further benefit the county’s development.

Tipperary last played in Division 2 under John Evans in 2010 and acquitted themselves well, though they were eventually relegated on five points. Many of the current players were involved and will be aware of the standards required to compete and survive at that level.

The run to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2016 and involvement at the business end of league campaigns means this Tipp panel is battle-hardened. They are better equipped this time around to face the challenge of Division 2.

By all accounts, the team is moving well in challenge games and really looking forward to the Cork challenge tomorrow night.

Mind you, Kearns will not have been impressed with the playing of last year’s South division football final in the middle of his league preparations, a game that involved 12 players between Clonmel Commercials and my own club Moyle Rovers. 

It ended in a draw after extra-time but thankfully produced no injuries. The replay was fixed for last Saturday before common sense prevailed and it has been knocked further down the track. Club fixtures in April will be interesting but that nettle can be grasped another day.

The addition to Kearns’ backroom team of former Offaly player Paschal Kellaghan is a massive signing. Kellaghan is coming in off a second successive Offaly title with his native Rhode and has enjoyed success with all the clubs he has steered.

But the best news Tipp have had for some time is the return of Steven O’Brien to the football panel — even if so many of us hoped it would happen sooner. I still often wonder what might have been had Stephen been available to the footballers in 2016 in that historic semi-final with Mayo.

It is a shame things didn’t work out for him on the hurling front, but he gave it his best shot so will have no regrets. His physicality, his ability to attack at pace and kick a score from distance make him stand out as a op-class midfielder and I cannot wait to see him back in action tomorrow night.

Even though he is only in the role a short time, tomorrow’s game will also give new Cork boss Ronan McCarthy a sound indication of where his troops are at. After Peadar Healy stepped down last year, it was vitally important that the Cork County Board appointed a manager who would command the respect of the players and supporters and they got that call spot on.

McCarthy was a tough, uncompromising player and should transfer these characteristics to his players. The talent pool will always exist in Cork but it’s all about harnessing that talent.

Cork supporters must be patient too and not demand instant results but at the same time they will fancy their chances of promotion this year. After a gloomy period, the hurlers gathered a groundswell of support last year, showing the mood can change swiftly on Leeside.

The game is a hard one to call. They all are this time of year, with no form guide worth consulting and player availability unclear, but I have a fancy for Tipp. Quinlivan and Sweeney up front give them a shout against most opposition. 

While last year’s Munster semi-final defeat to Cork still plays on our minds. It was an afternoon when Tipp just didn’t perform to their ability and this is an opportunity to reverse that result.

In what will be a very competitive division, momentum will be important and a strong start is essential to any promotion ambitions. 

I spent all of my inter-county career in the bottom division, unfortunately, so I will relish the coming months watching our lads shape up to the challenges against quality opposition.


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