I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb with that, but I also genuinely don’t feel it will be as comfortable as the historical template for this fixture would suggest.
Always around this time of year when I was involved, the Kerry players and management would become very proficient at being dishonest. The brazen knavery would revolve around playing these early rounds of the Munster championship, and facing traditional minnows like Tipperary, Waterford or Clare.
The strict, unwritten ‘never build up your own’ GAA code means you play the poor mouth as much as possible, and build up your opponent beyond all reasonable reality. It was an almost laughable web of fiction that reached out to the media and to anybody else who would listen; about how much the Kerry players respected Waterford football, how Clare carried a real and present threat, and if we weren’t tuned in, that Tipperary could turn us over.
Well I got news for you, we didn’t really believe it, and we knew you weren’t buying it either, but all parties seemed content enough to let it roll.
It’s like when your wife (not mine of course) asks you, ‘does my bum look big in this?’, she already knows it does, and you sure as hell know it does, but the last thing you ever tell her in that situation is the truth.
Everybody goes away happier. The build-up to Kerry playing Tipp was always a bit like that for the players and management. Metaphorically, games against them had a backside that looked more Kim Kardashian than Jennifer Aniston, but we didn’t want to hurt their feelings so nobody ever told them.
With all the false platitudes being bandied about, it was always difficult for players to become as mentally focused on a championship game as you would like to be.
We knew Tipperary would make it uncomfortable for long stretches and keep within touching distance for 40-50 minutes or so, but inevitably, they would always succumb to the superior quality, depth and winning mentality of the Kerry squad.
It was an awkward spot to manage, going into a game that you knew you wouldn’t lose. Trying to guard against complacency and still keeping your opponents in perspective. There would be bigger fish to fry. We never truly felt the threat of defeat from Tipperary. You knew at the back of your mind you didn’t have to play at your best to beat them, no matter how much management tried to guard against it.
If you weren’t tuned in, it’d be sticky, but you’d get away with it. Somebody would come up with something special, or they may possibly just beat themselves, because crucially, they never really believed they could beat Kerry either. They showed up more in hope than expectancy. Waiting for things to happen, as opposed to making them happen.
But therein I see the greatest change in Tipperary football and the biggest challenge for Kerry next Sunday. Their mindset is very different. Perhaps it was the arrival of John Evans, who acted as the catalyst that brought all the good work together — or maybe that’s being unfair to the long-serving football people of Tipperary — but they have made enormous strides out of greyish obscurity of Gaelic footballs also-rans in the past five years.
Evans appeared to provide football in the county at all levels with the attitude adjustment they needed to start believing in their ability and achieve success. John doesn’t suffer from an inferiority complex, and that mentality has a way of becoming infectious.
Their development squad structure yielded a series of very talented players who would go on to win Munster and All-Ireland minor titles, and Under -21 Munster success as recently as this year, narrowly missing out on the All-Ireland. Those players have beaten Kerry at their respective age groups all the way up.
The green and gold jersey holds no fear for Michael Quinlivan or Stephen O’Brien et al. And that fearless mentality is now the more common one inside the walls of Tipperary’s dressing room. They have been infused with a winning mindset.
Last year, Tipperary pushed Cork every inch of the way before eventually losing out to by three points.
They had the winning posts in their sights, but they didn’t quite believe. You could see their growth then, edging their way up the mountain and closer to taking a major Munster scalp. This year, they put a 22 point beat-down on Waterford and had 10 different scorers on their first day out.
When Dublin produced something similar against Longford on the same weekend, everybody spent the week eulogising about their quality and ruthlessness and how we could change the championship to eliminate these types of hammerings. Tipperary’s performance sneaked right under the radar and but for an injury to Colin O’Riordan’s hip, the country would scarcely have known the game even took place. The perfect scenario for Peter Creedon.
Kerry, on the other hand, have used every minute of their camp under the Algarve’s beating sun to circle the wagons. And they needed circling. Things had become disjointed as they always do in these couple of months in Kerry as the hard county training is placed in an uncomfortable arranged marriage to big county championships games for the clubs.
It leaves players in the unenviable position of trying to serve two masters. They’ve picked up injuries to key guys like Paul Murphy, Kieran O’Leary and Dave Moran and have others carrying knocks, bangs and bruises. But the week at the Amendoeira golf resort was money well spent, and will have refocused the group and brought them right back to where they’d want to be. I’m sure it was as much about mental focus as it was about football.
People talk about the strength of Kerry’s new additions, but Tommy Walsh, Paul Galvin and Colm Cooper are still working out the kinks. They need time and patience. James O’Donoghue is coming back from the longest injury lay-off of his career. How will his shoulder react to championship football?
Kerry are dealing with plenty of imponderables facing into their first competitive game in 12 weeks. A long break like that brings its own challenges. Mentality, not manliness will win this game. Make no mistake, maybe for the first time in living memory, Tipperary will take on Kerry believing they can win, not just compete.
They’ve dropped a few jeans sizes, and I’m sure Kerry will have taken note. The mindset and performance of the Munster and All-Ireland champions should reflect the greater threat posed by the Premier and be enough to see them home with title and reputation intact.