While he was still in his early 20s, but sometime after he’d blazed onto the scene winning back-to-back Wimbledon titles, Boris Becker indicated just how worldly and weary he already was by that point.
“One thing I know is that the world will not allow me to just play,” he said. “It will not allow me to be number 15 in the world.”
It’s a sentiment that members of the Tipperary hurling team have been able to relate to, as far back as 2011. Seamus Callinan was 22 when he lined out in that year’s All-Ireland final.
Brendan and Paudie Maher were still only 21. Noel McGrath was just 20. Like Becker, they had all exploded on to the big stage, each of them winning an All Star and a Munster title within their first two seasons and an All-Ireland by the end of their third.
But then that September of 2011, they didn’t finish first in the world, they ended up next best in second, and they’d find that world, especially their own little part of it, wouldn’t allow for that.
It hasn’t been any more forgiving in the years that followed. In five of the subsequent seven seasons, they finished either second (2014) or third (2012, 2015, 2017) and the question marks concerning their backbone and manhood were just as sceptical as they were in the one year (2013) they weren’t on the podium at all.
Even in 2016, when they got back to the summit and Bubbles went full Cameron/Leonardo, proclaiming they were fuckin’ kings of the world again, that same world had no sooner applauded when it folded its arms once more: well, can you be fuckin’ kings of the world again? Go back to back? You know, like those Kilkenny fellas routinely did?
As we know, they didn’t. In 2017 they lost to the eventual league champions, Munster champions and All-Ireland champions, leaving them with a world ranking of third. This year they couldn’t even manage finishing third in Munster. And once again, the world – especially in their own part of it – just won’t allow that.
Yesterday in this paper John Fogarty carried a report with the West Tipperary board chairman John O’Shea calling for Michael Ryan and his selectors to step down, claiming they had “gone past their sell-by date”.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago since Declan Ryan won back-to-back Munster titles “and the media in Tipperary” were “roaring for his resignation”.
O’Shea failed to mention that Michael Ryan won an All-Ireland only 21 months ago. The redemption All-Ireland had become the forgotten All-Ireland.
The county board have already declared their support of Ryan, stating they will honour the extension they gave him last autumn to stay until the end of 2020, but Ryan himself said immediately after Sunday’s defeat to Clare that he would need more time to reflect on what’s best for “the overall health of Tipperary hurling”.
Anyone who knows the man will know nothing else will govern his decision; never has there been a less egotistical manager to lift Liam MacCarthy or Sam Maguire these past 30 years. Whoever is in charge of Tipperary in 2019 will know this though: Tipp have as good a chance as anyone of winning that year’s All-Ireland, if the lessons of 2018 are absorbed. In fact their chances of winning it all in 2019 have probably increased for going out so early in 2018.
Contrary to what Ger Loughnane said, this Tipperary team is not “finished”. There’ll be no retirements to any key player this winter, the way there was a wave of retirements in the autumns of 2015 and 2016. What there should be though is a few sabbaticals.
Tipp’s competitive season started as it finished – with a game and defeat to Clare. On the last Sunday of January – January! – Ryan’s team were again foiled by a late goal, on that occasion, from David Reidy.
Padraic Maher was centre back that day in Ennis, scoring a glorious point from underneath the main stand. Noel McGrath, with typical efficiency, scored five points, three from play. Bonner Maher was wing forward.
Brendan Maher came on with 15 minutes to go. All those years playing into August and September for Tipp and there they were, still answering the call and serving the cause in January.
All four have played every league for Tipp since they first got the call back in 2009 or 2010. In that time they’ve played in five league finals without winning any of them but they’ve also spared their county the indignity of relegation or even a relegation play-off, something Kilkenny were subjected to in 2015 when they prevailed over Clare by a point.
Every other major county has spent time in 1B, highlighting just how consistent – a word not typically associated with Tipp – this core group of players have been.
But after this championship, the question has to be asked: have all those miles, those games, those wins in February and March, caught up with them? Cost them?
Next year, don’t be surprised if the three eldest Mahers and Noel McGrath are told they’re not to be seen in Dr Morris Park until next March at the earliest; go take up and play basketball like Kieran Donaghy if needs be to keep the competitive juices ticking over, so long as they’re mad for road and hurling come April.
And that’s if training continues to be held in Dr Morris Park. When Colm Coyle was entering his 17th season playing for Meath, he told me in an interview that the secret of his longevity was Sean Boylan’s propensity to constantly change the location as well as the design of his training.
“If I had to be going into Pairc Tailteann all that time,” he’d say, channelling his inner Yogi Berra, “I’d have been gone a long time ago.”
Tipp don’t need to blow it up; they just need to shake it up. Rest the veterans. Change the scenery for the others. Give the hamsters a break from the treadmill.
If they get relegated, they get relegated — it hasn’t hurt Galway. At Congress last year, Tipp’s county secretary Tim Floyd warned that the new-look championship would have unintended consequences for the league, and while he’s been proven right and the GAA should reconfigure Div 1A and 1B along the lines they used to be in the early noughties, Tipp can’t depend on or wait for Croke Park to address the current imbalance.
The Tipp public mightn’t like the team skirting with relegation but then as the past seven years have proven, they’re not happy when the team finishes runner-up in a league or All-Ireland final either.
The 2019 Tipp management will also hardly be as accommodating to the clubs next April. While in other counties players were resting and freshening up for this new inter-county championship, the Mahers and the McGraths, some of them dual club players, were slogging it out week after week in the divisional championship.
Their sense of service to club as well as county is matched only by the sense of ownership and expectation the clubs and public in Tipp have regarding these players.
Ryan may decide that the group needs a new voice — they’ve been listening to his nine of the past 11 years – but should that come to pass his own voice needs to be heard again by the incoming management.
Think of how much he learned this month alone. Such insights and learnings can’t go to waste, just as blooding the likes of Billy McCarthy and Alan Flynn was hardly a waste either.
Tipp may not have proven to be the team they threatened to be and become the new Kilkenny – but then no one else did. Galway and Clare are still seeking their second All-Ireland, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Wexford, their first.
Tipp may not have won as many championships as we thought but they were magnificent contributors to championships they didn’t win, including this year’s.
Maybe 2016 was the end of their film, where they win the girl back and everything else after that is just postscript; in 2041, when they’re silver-haired, waving to the stands in Croke Park, are they or anyone else really going to harp on about when they went winless the summer of 2018?
But our sense is that there’s more in them. We’re in a post-Kilkenny world, albeit one in which Kilkenny might still win the occasional All-Ireland. So are Tipp.
When the Galway footballers relinquished their All-Ireland crown in 1999, losing to Mayo in the Connacht final, Ray Silke contended that it was actually better for their 2000 prospects that they exited in July rather than play right through to August or September.
A summer in the States would be good for a few of the lads. The following two seasons, Galway were playing into September, and duly won it all in 2001.
Such has been the astonishing consistency shown by Dublin, Kerry, and Mayo in football, Kilkenny — and Tipp - in hurling — we forget that champion teams can have a gap year.
Tyrone had one in 2006. Meath lost in the first round in 2000 yet played in the last game of 2001. Even Tipp and Kilkenny took 2013 out after trying to punch each other out for half a decade. In 2017 Kilkenny even took another year out.
Like Elvis in that ad, Tipp – and Waterford — ain’t necessarily gone, baby; they may just be taking a badly-needed break. If they can’t finish first or second, they might as well finish seventh.
It could be the makings of them being kings of the fuckin’ world again.
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