Tomorrow his Tipperary footballers set out on the 2010 Munster Championship road. Facing them are the All-Ireland champions, Kerry and homeland to the Premier county manager.
Before he began the process of overhauling Tipperary football in 2008, Evans had devoted a lifetime of football service inside the Kingdom. But he has done well to separate his heart from his head most notably when he guided Tipperary to a remarkable Munster U21 title over their hosts in Tralee six weeks ago.
That night he wore the look of a man with torn emotions. And tomorrow will be no different.
“That U21 win was very awkward”, recalls Evans. “When my son, my daughter, my mother and family are going to the game wearing green and gold, it is awkward. All my family are absolute Kerry fans. The chairman of the Kerry county board is married to my aunt, the treasurer in Kerry for 30 years, James Coffey, is married to my other aunt.
“We’re steeped in Kerry football. Myself and Jack O’Connor meet on Fridays, have chats and we’re friends. There’s about seven of the Kerry team I’ve trained at U21 level. Of course it’s very strange and it has a wrong feeling to it.”
But it’s nothing personal, just business. His focus is condensed towards honing Tipperary’s preparations alone and no sideshows will veer him off that track.
“I’m engaged by Tipperary to do a job. I’m in the middle of a process, a five-year plan and I’m happy with things. I’d be hoping that by the time we get through the qualifiers this year, you’ll see a Tipperary team progress. After the U21 Munster win, it’ll give them belief.”
Evans mentions the All-Ireland qualifier series as if it is a fait accompli that Tipperary are set for that destination. Certainly the severity of the task tomorrow, facing a team packed with national football luminaries, makes it hard not to countenance a Kerry victory. But it is a rigorous test of Kerry’s credentials that Evans is seeking from his men.
“We’re a young team and what I’d be more concerned about is that their heads are right. We’re not expecting to beat them, we’re not that silly to think Kerry will be toppled. I see Kerry with Kieran Donaghy back this year. I think he’s just one of the most magical players we’ve had in many a decade. He has the colossal presence of Bomber Liston but he’s more fleet-footed and flexible. Kerry have lost players but their attacking format is lethal.”
If there is one shortcoming that Tipperary have to rectify before facing that fearsome offensive unit, it is their slow starts to games. The game against Limerick and Sligo in last year’s championship, and Laois and Armagh in this spring’s league all followed a similar pattern. Their opponents accelerated clear on the scoreboard in the first-half and despite a brave second-half revival Tipperary came up short at the final whistle.
It is something that has irked Evans who believes it is part of the learning curve his side are on.
“They weren’t slow starts, they were disastrous starts. You won’t recover against Kerry if they get a start on you. That seems to be the weakness that this team is developing. We’ve certainly looked at it and I have spoken to other managers about it. They’re very helpful and they’ve said you’ve to bide your time, it’s part of the development.”
The onset of his third championship season at the helm is now near for Evans. The year before he arrived Tipperary were trounced in the Munster championship by Cork and ten of that team are no longer on the panel. Retirements contributed to some extent but the turnover illustrates the scale of the regeneration work that has been done. That work has continued with new players like Ciaran McGrath and Peter Acheson breaking through and the squad has benefitted from a league where they pitted themselves against big names in Division Two.
Football is thriving across the county with the U21 side and Clonmel High School providing silverware to eradicate the soul-crushing gains of moral victories.
“My father always said, ‘know where you’re coming from’,” continued Evans. “We’ve come from the depths of Division Four. The average age of the team is 22½ and they’re still learning. We have proof of progress this year in silverware, rather than these moral victories which never did anyone any good.
“We battled hard in the league as well and while I was bitterly disappointed with relegation, five points would’ve kept you up last year. I’m hoping our lads embrace the occasion tomorrow. After the U21, Kerry will be thinking that you’ve had your bit and you’re in for a dusting now. And if that happens, we’ll take our beating manfully.”