Thomas McDonaghs, whose squad is comprised of players from six clubs in the north of the county, qualified for the county senior football decider on November 6 when they overcame Clonmel Commercials at the semi-final stage last Sunday and ensured they will be the first north Tipperary team to appear in the final since 1975.
In an area traditionally regarded as a hotbed of hurling, the footballers progress is a remarkable feat considering that three of the clubs represented on their side — Lorrha, Borrisokane and Kilruane McDonaghs — did not enter an adult football team into competition in 2011.
“It’s a huge achievement for us,” said Thomas McDonaghs selector Joe Hannigan, father of Tipperary senior footballer George who missed out on Sunday’s game as he is currently travelling. “There are six clubs who have players on our panel in Shannon Rovers, Inane Rovers, Kildangan, Lorrha, Borrisokane and Kilruane McDonaghs. But while this is a big hurling area, there have always been really good footballers here. Underage football would be strong but it has always tended to fall down at adult level.”
The idea to first enter a north Tipperary divisional outfit into the senior football championship five years ago was the brainchild of Hannigan, who observed county players like his son and attacker Phillip Austin not being given the opportunity to feature in the Tipperary SFC. Progress has been incremental with the emphasis on hurling proving a major obstacle.
“I felt we needed to give these lads a chance at senior level. I got the green light at the end of 2006 but we had to split the north into two teams in Thomas McDonaghs and Father John Kenyons. The Kenyons pulled out this year but we’ve kept going.
“We’ve been dependent really on the clubs not being involved in hurling. Like last year we’d a big problem when we’d to face Aherlow in the county senior quarter-final on the same day that Borrisokane played in a county IHC final and Kildangan played in a county SHC semi-final. So we were down a lot of players that day and lost by five points.”
Yet there was always talented players available. From the starting 15 on Sunday, Dan Hackett, Stephen Murphy, Liam England and Austin have all played senior football for Tipperary, and while attackers Darragh Egan and Brian O’Meara both won All-Ireland senior hurling medals with Tipperary in 2010, they have strong football track records as well.
Egan was named player of the series when the Irish U18 International Rules team toured Australia in 2004 and O’Meara won a Munster U21FC medal with Tipperary last year. At the helm, knitting all those threads together is former Laois senior footballer Chris Conway.
“Chris has been a fantastic coach for us,” said Hannigan.
“He started getting involved with us in 2009. Stephen Murphy would have gone to school in Knockbeg College where Chris teaches and Stephen’s father Pat, who was a Tipp minor football selector this year, is a selector with us. That’s the main link. Chris has a great way with people and he has brought great belief to the squad.”
There is plenty anticipation already ahead of Sunday week’s showdown but there is a potential fixture dilemma for the Kildangan contingent in the Thomas McDonaghs squad. They lifted the Tipperary junior football crown last Saturday and are now down to play the Limerick champions in the quarter-final of the Munster JFC on Sunday week. With a clash on the horizon, Munster Council chiefs are expected to review the fixture programme this week.