THE U21 football grade has consistently proved to be a graveyard for the ambitions of Tipperary teams. A Munster crown has yet to wend its way towards the Premier County despite their fervent efforts to win in nine finals.
Tonight in Austin Stack Park they face into their tenth decider, Kerry providing the opposition, trying to realise a cherished dream after coming up short in the last three finals. Last year’s decider in Semple Stadium was the most traumatic reversal, when Cork’s injury-time goal saw them pipped by a point.
“That was a real downer,” admits manager John Evans. “We felt last year was the year as we’d a very strong team. Even though Cork had beaten Kerry convincingly, we still felt we’d team that was good enough. We were very competitive in the final but the win slipped away from us. It was tough to take.
“It’s the tenth final Tipperary have contested and when you haven’t won any, there’s a sort of reluctance to think you’ll break the run. It’s frustrating having come so close, there’s no doubt about it. We’re challenging against Cork and Kerry, who are two of the top football counties in Ireland. It’s always going to be tough. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, they’ve setting such a high standard that it’s bringing us along.”
Evans is steadfast in his belief that Kerry will be strong favourites after Tipperary have been shorn of several of their stars from last year. But he insists his side will be hugely competitive and are not travelling without hope.
“We’ve lost a lot of players from last year which affects our chances. We still have a few left over but with U21 it’s how you get the other players to fit in that is key. This particular Kerry team is a team that a lot of Kerry hopes are going to be pinned upon. I saw them play Cork and they’re an exceptionally good football team.
“But we certainly will be competitive. We will trouble them, give them the game and have the ability and desire. We got a good score against Limerick in kicking 16 points. But we’re going to need to get some break and that bit of luck that has been missing in the last few years.”
Kerry boss John Kennedy is not handing out faint platitudes when he extols the virtues of this Tipperary outfit.
“I’ve first hand experience at minor level over the last three or four years of what Tipperary are like. They were our most difficult opponents, were very consistent and have been knocking on the door. They could consider themselves to be seriously unlucky last year in losing against Cork.
“From a Kerry viewpoint, we’re under no illusions about this game. That’s not just a lie for the media. They’ve made huge strides over the last few years and have quite a number of senior players involved.”
Kerry have tweaked their starting lineup for this game with Paul O’Donoghue and Edmond Walsh benefiting from good form in training by making the cut from throw-in.
“James O’Donoghue is unfortunate to lose out with an injury,” says Kennedy. “Paul has played in both games so far and going well in training. It’s the same story with Edmond. It’s all about a panel and the policy we have as part of a management team is to go on form.”
Kerry have inflicted comprehensive wins on their opponents to date, eight points better than Cork and eighteen points superior to Waterford. But Kennedy is mindful of being installed as favourites considering the number of big teams that have already been ousted in this year’s U21 championship.
“We have the favouritism tag, but Cork had that playing us and it counted for nothing. Look at the U21’s around the country this year that have already lost out, Tyrone, Galway and Mayo are all gone. We’ve been doing well so far but we need to maintain that. A number of guys in our team have senior experience and it’s those leaders in our team that are doing well. They’ve stood up this year and that helps in the heat of battle in championship. The other players are responding and we hope that continues.”