Back when Tipperary beat Kilkenny in 2010, their full-back Paul Curran had a mantra and a mindset that encapsulated that of his team’s for that game.
At their last training session ahead of that year’s final, the team’s kitman John ‘Hotpoint’ Hayes had stuck his head into the players’ huddle to tell them something he felt they had to know. After the previous year’s final he had seen their coach Eamon O’Shea break down crying. “That man can’t cry again this year,” Hayes would say, and as he would dash off, the players stood there in silence, registering the image, until Eoin Kelly would break it by repeating Hotpoint’s sentiments. That couldn’t happen again. Not that year. Not that All-Ireland final.
Curran, Kelly and O’Shea are no longer directly involved with the Tipp set-up but their memory and that defiance was there again last Sunday. Everything about Tipp against Kilkenny, you could say everything about them this summer, screamed Not Today, Not This Year. As Seamus Callanan put it, whatever about baggage they were carrying, they had a lot of hurt to take out on someone. And there’s no-one they would have wanted to take it out on more than their opponents last Sunday, as much out of respect as vengeance.
In winning, Tipp may have wiped away five years of hurt (it’s only five years since the 2011 All-Ireland final, and considering Tipp – at least the supporters – were feeling good – perhaps too good – about themselves going into that game, allow us to be pedantic and deviate from the consensus that it’s been six years of hurt), but it would be wrong to say it did, or should, erase those five years. The core of this Tipp team had contributed hugely to hurling over that time.
Think of the 2013 league final and qualifiers in Nowlan Park. The 2014 league final and All-Ireland finals. Last year’s semi-final against Galway. All cracking games, a fair few of them classics, which Tipp contributed so much to.
The only thing was they won none of them. As kind and as good as Tipp were to hurling in those years, those years and hurling weren’t so kind to Tipp.
It would be too glib to say that this year hurling finally reciprocated that contribution. Tipp were handed little this year; everything they took. One thing they were handed was one of the most arduous routes to an All-Ireland title.
Tipp’s jubilee team of 1991 were saluted in Croke Park on Sunday. But in winning this All-Ireland, Tipp equalled the feat of that special Cork team of 1966 that was honoured on Leeside last week.
In the intervening 50 years, no side had won three Munster championship games in the one season against their fellow hurling counties in the province and gone on to win the All-Ireland. And that Cork team of ’66 didn’t have to go through the great Tipp team of that era, just like Clare in 2013 didn’t have to go through Kilkenny or Tipp. But this year Tipp had to go through Kilkenny, after dispensing of Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway before them. Other than beating Davy’s Clare somewhere along the way, could it have been any better, sweeter, more impressive?
This team have been unfairly maligned through the years. You don’t take Kilkenny to extra-time and replays like they did in 2014 unless you’re men. The Tipp team of 2014 would have beaten the Kilkenny of 2016. But every year after the nadir that was 2012, their level of resilience and mental fortitude went up a notch, and this year it went up a couple.
The parallels between 2010 and now are obvious. Tipp may not dominate All-Irelands over the next five years the way many people thought they would back then and as Kilkenny would turn out to do; teams like Waterford, Galway, and if they change their style of management and not just play, Clare, are too good and too ambitious now to allow any monopoly; in that sense Michael Ryan was right about how numerous counties will feel emboldened, though not quite liberated, after last Sunday. But what has to be recognised is that Tipp are actually in a stronger position to win over the next couple of years than they were in years like 2011 and 2012 because they have continuity of management.
This column has often said it, as brilliant as Kilkenny have been in the Cody era, their dominance was facilitated by how the other members of the traditional Big Three botched the succession stakes. As good a man as he was, Michael Doyle was not the man to replace Nicky English; Ken Hogan was, but got it a year too late. John Allen was the right man to succeed Donal O’Grady, and Ger Cunningham would have been the right man to succeed him, but 10 years on, Cork is still paying for the folly of blowing up that programme.
In Tipp, Liam Sheedy had created something very special. A “family” they called it. But then, to the shock of the players, he stepped down, and crucially, so did Eamon O’Shea and Michael Ryan along with him.
I remember asking Ryan in 2010 could he not have seen himself succeeding Sheedy. But at the time he saw himself as a number two. He thought of the time they were hammered by Cork by 10 points in the opening round of that 2010 championship and how he doubted if he’d have as thick a skin as Sheedy at the time had to be a number one. But two years later when Tipp again gave it to the right man – eventually – and Eamon O’Shea asked Ryan back in as a selector, Ryan answered the call. And when Tipp at last smartly recognised the importance of continuity and not blowing up O’Shea’s – now ultimately – successful project, Ryan answered his county’s call.
The past four years in many ways has been about trying to reclaim the lost ground of the previous two and the culture Sheedy had created. It was instructive to hear Seamus Callanan back using the term “family” to describe the Tipperary group of 2016. And for the rest of hurling, quite ominous. With Ryan going nowhere, Tipp are going nowhere. Or at least they’re not going to implode. As some of them would say in 2010 and ahead of last Sunday about other things, “That can’t happen again.”
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