ENDA MCEVOY: A ‘twitchy’ time for Tipperary

Declan Ryan faces a big summer and needs to show he has learned from past errors if Tipp are to prosper.

Starting tomorrow, this is the summer that Tipperary boss Declan Ryan demonstrates that there’s steel behind his laid back demeanour

It was the eve of the 2001 championship, Tipp were approaching critical mass and Nicky English was a contented man.

Not just because they’d won the league a couple of weeks earlier. Not just because, in the third year of his tenure as manager, English had put together a young and progressive team that were clearly going to go hard on the MacCarthy Cup.

No: the natives were not restless, and that was making him even happier.

“That’s a thing with Tipperary fans,” he mused in an interview. “If 12 or 13 of the championship team aren’t obvious by the end of the league, they start to get twitchy.”

The place English was in 11 years ago, Declan Ryan is to some extent in now. But only to some extent. Twelve or 13 of his optimum championship team were obvious by the end of the league. That doesn’t mean the natives haven’t been twitching.

At the moment Tipp stand on the edge of a swamp. It won’t take much either way to send their summer off in wildly different directions.

One ball breaks in their favour and they’re grand. Lar comes on in the last 10 minutes of a knife-edged game, bangs one in and they take it from there. Think of what happened in the closing stages of the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway and what it led to. Oaks from acorns. Great triumphs from tiny margins.

One misstep, on the other hand, and they’re in the morass, very possibly facing a qualifier showdown with Dublin or Kilkenny. And yes, Tipperary extricated themselves from a similar morass two years ago, but that was under a different regime.

A regime where Liam Sheedy strategised and planned and delegated. Where Michael Ryan was the voice of honesty and common sense in the dressing room and also filled the existential Tipperary need for a member of the management to be an All-Ireland medallist. And where Eamon O’Shea may not have been the only recent championship-winning coach who was a Tom Waits fan but was certainly the only recent championship-winning coach who read books about tennis in order to get his players to think about the sound of the ball being struck.

Declan Ryan’s regime isn’t Liam Sheedy’s regime and can’t be expected to be. But Sheedy learned as he went along. What can be expected of Ryan is that he learns as he goes along too. One harsh lesson he’ll already have digested from last year’s Brendan Maher debacle. The best players start on the field, not on the bench. Granted, that will from time to time entail making a hard decision. But making a hard decision from time to time is what management is all about.

Declan Ryan is, as the world and its mother have attested, a laidback guy. This is the summer where he demonstrates that there’s steel behind the relaxed demeanour. Otherwise he won’t be given another summer in which to demonstrate it.

If he wants to look around for an encouraging precedent, he could reflect that Tipperary at the moment are precisely where Kilkenny were this time 10 years ago. And that is not — or at any rate need not be — such a bad place.

Remember? On winning the All-Ireland in 2000, Kilkenny were widely expected to retain the title in 2001, possibly even make it three in a row in 2002. The earth appeared theirs for the inheriting, as it did for Tipperary in the autumn of 2010 after their All-Ireland senior and U21 triumphs.

Then real life intruded, as real life has an awkward habit of doing. As with Kilkenny and the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, so for Tipperary at Croke Park last September.

All told, Tipp look rather better off than they did a month ago. Their exit from the league was undistinguished, but these things pass. And at least it was Cork, not they, who had it handed to them in the league final.

And Lar is back. And Patrick Maher will be back to give them traction up front sooner rather than later. And Seamus Hennessy could be back in the frame later in the season to broaden their options. And Paul Curran is back, thereby releasing Padraic Maher to wing-back to rain those mortars down on top of enemy defences.

(As an aside, what is it about Maher and Tommy Walsh and their deliveries, such a throwback in an age that demands a message on every ball? A generation ago Brian Whelahan and Liam Dunne were nonpareil suppliers of wonderful ball from wing-back, low and clean and sculpted and precise. Maher and Walsh, brilliant as the pair of them are, hang the thing up in the air and let their forwards worry about it from there).

Tipp are vulnerable tomorrow, no question. But how vulnerable are they to Limerick in view of the latter’s current state of undress? It is no slight on John Allen to say that it would have been interesting to see how much better Limerick had become at their possession game in Year Two under Donal O’Grady.

The loss of Seamus Hickey deprives them of someone who’d sweep behind the full-back and come out with the sliotar. The omission of Niall Moran deprives them of someone who’d latch onto possession in the half-forward line. (Moran hit four wides in last year’s provincial semi-final but he also scored four points, and any forward who gets on the ball that often has something to recommend him). David Breen gives ballast on the half-forward line but won’t lazily flight a point over from 50 metres, almost as an afterthought, the way Declan Hannon would. And Kevin Downes has, in the way that second-season novices are wont to, been searching for last year’s form.

For Limerick it’s a bigger game than for Tipp. They’ll enjoy a couple of good spells, and if they’re within three or four points of the favourites entering the closing 10 minutes they’ll have given themselves a fighting chance. Seeing out the trip, moreover, will banish the questions raised by their collapse against Clare in the divisional final. To finish, try this for a trifecta. The hosts to win by five or six, the game to count for little in the long run and Tipperary supporters to still be twitchy tomorrow night.


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