DONAL Óg Cusack’s statistical legwork might have provided the most studied league table of the GAA year.
That summary of championship success across Munster counties between 2009 and 2015 supposedly served, on The Sunday Game, as evidence of Cork stoogery. But Tommy Toomey read from the other end.
“It was a hurling stat. But in that period, Tipp schools and inter-county teams were top in terms of winning titles. At a time when Tipp football was supposedly interfering with hurling.
“People should be looking at that.”
Even in All-Ireland week, great Tipp football men find themselves talking hurling. Find themselves falling back into blanket defence of a way of life.
As the pathologists made their incisions after minor hurling defeat, the odd grumble rumbled round the county. Not so much about the nine young lads who will serve again in the’s minor football final, but about perceived drains from split attention.
Might exclusive focus have got them over the line against Galway?
“I think it’s the opposite,” argues Toomey.
“There is scare-mongering that hurling will suffer. But I think Tipp hurling has benefited from the number of players now involved in development squads in the county. The more players you have that educate themselves to become inter-county players, the better for everyone.
“We should trust our young people. Just develop them at 14, 15, 16 to give the commitment to be an inter-county player, to invest in themselves in terms of the strength and conditioning, the sacrifices, then they can always make choices later.”
Not that football men are blind to hurling’s role in the county’s football renaissance.
While John Evans worked his magic, he talked of a locked-in winning psyche in Tipp that came from mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. He reckoned it came from hurling.
Some hurling people might pine for that psyche, but Evans talked of peeling away a layer of indifference and finding players who expected a fair bit of themselves.
Toomey, who managed Tipp U21s to this year’s All-Ireland final and has been involved with underage teams since the 1980s, hated nothing more than the indifference. The apathy to Tipp football results.
He points to the influence of hurlers on Tipp’s mould-breakers; the 2011 All-Ireland-winning minors.
“Lads like Liam McGrath, Seamus Kennedy, John Meagher… the hurlers go out every year, there’s an expectation they’ll win something. Footballers weren’t playing under those pressures. When those players started to join the football squad, you could see the difference in attitude. They had the belief they could win. The standard of football in Tipp came up three or four steps.”
That Tipp are back in another final four years on, under a different coaching set-up, suggests structural solidity. Add another provincial minor title in 2012, this year’s U21 Munster crown - only the county’s second ever - and foundations appear to pass inspection.
Until recently, nobody could recall a Tipp success without Seamus McCarthy on the line: Munster minor 1984, a place in that centenary All-Ireland final, All-Ireland senior B 1985, All-Ireland junior 1998, Tommy Murphy Cup 2005.
As the tears flowed ten years ago, after Declan Browne’s late flurry subdued Wexford, McCarthy said: “Nobody wants to be cast as a dreamer, but you dream of days like this”.
A “foot soldier” now, struggling to watch with his heart instead of analysing everything in the stands, McCarthy is dreaming bigger.
“When were were involved, they were sort of one-off events - ‘84 was a magnificent celebration of everything that was good in the GAA. But it didn’t happen again for 11 years. It was ‘95 before we won another Munster minor.
“They were fantastic days and we embraced them completely. Declan going up and collecting the cup. We grasped at straws. But it’s different now, I think.
“Now, for the first time in my life, I’m looking at consistency of effort and consistency of ability and you’re giving yourself hope for the future.
“We had some exceptional players. We had Brian Burke and Derry Foley who were a match for anyone in the middle of the field. We had Peter Lambert. And then Declan arrived.
“But now I think it’s more team. There are standouts, but I think the team concept is coming through… “For us to be in the last two, four years ago in the last two as well, three years ago in the last four, that’s very very good. And it no longer becomes a novelty.
“And now the game and the winning of the game is more of a priority than just the event. Sometimes, that took over in the past.”
None of the great Tipp football men - not McCarthy, not Toomey, not 2011 coach David Power - will hear that Tipp football teams weren’t looked after over the years, weren’t prepared right.
But Cork and Kerry had enough going for them without a head start. Toomey remembers well the frustrations serving as minor selector alongside CIT’s Keith Ricken.
“By the time you had the players developed, they were nearly out of minor. It was just too late. Some of them were 16, 17 and they hadn’t got the basics of football or fitness levels anywhere close to Cork and Kerry. We were at a total disadvantage. Cork and Kerry teams had a structure behind them. Putting on the blue and gold jersey didn’t mean as much if you were putting it on for football. All the best athletes, the real powerful players, would go into the hurling pot first.
“And there was no real programme for players. Strength and conditioning, education, skills, decision-making... all that was left to the players themselves or how good the minor coaches were.”
The laying of foundations is well documented; the roll out of underage development squads in 2008 under the county board stewardship of John Costigan.
“I felt that Tipp were not going to build castles on sand,” said Costigan at the end of that term.
A few good men, looking after their best youngsters. Dr Morris Park beside Semple always available. No more looking for a pitch.
“I’d recommend it to anyone, any county,” says Toomey. Give the U14s your best people.” “Looking further down the road, rather than year by year, was the real secret of making sure the conveyor belt keeps going.
“The players themselves knew the interest was there and it wasn’t just a tick-box operation. They had the opportunity to develop in a concerted way. And you could build that belief that there’s no reason why a Tipperary footballer cannot work as hard as a Cork or Kerry footballer.”
Maybe one is a direct consequence of the other, but McCarthy, who never misses a Sigerson Cup match, also acknowledges the opportunities Tipp footballers now get in third level, to better themselves and inspire those coming behind.
“The people in charge of the development squads are the real laochras, the unsung heroes. I think the development squads have filled a void. But now we also have Tipp players playing football in college.
“Michael Quinlivan was the driving force behind UCC winning last year. Colin O’Riordan led UCD to win the Freshers. Steven O’Brien was the driving force with DCU. A north Tipperary footballer! It’s a long time since you saw that.
A north Tipperary footballer. More and more gems are being found in that old wasteland.
“I’ve always had a view that there are footballers everywhere in Tipperary,” says McCarthy.
“Geography shouldn’t determine whether you play hurling or football.” “I go back to the 80s hurling team. The hurlers that came out of West Tipp; the likes of Nicky, Pat Fox, Declan Ryan, Joe Hayes, John Kennedy. The three Bonnars. Eight or nine from West Tipp, which wasn’t the done thing.”
John Kennedy’s son Jack was outstanding against Kildare, though the Kennedy’s have been developed in Clonmel, in the heartland.
“But look at young Alan Tynan coming from as northerly point as you can get (Inane Rovers, Roscrea). Superb player,” says McCarthy.
Maybe Tipp football men are forever doomed to worry, but Toomey does advise caution. To borrow a phrase beloved of their’s opponents; “walk aisy while the jug is full.”
Power, now Wexford manager, warned recently that much more work was needed at the younger grades. Minor hurling manager Liam Cahill also voiced concerns.
Toomey fears September spotlight may slacken urgency in the engine room.
He sees the renewed energy and diligence Kerry themselves afford underage. He watches former Cork greats return to guide their prospects. And he hopes Tipp won’t be left behind again.
“My worry is that maybe over the last 18 months, we really have taken our eye off the ball at U14, 15, 16. Some of the people that were there have moved on. There are still great people there, but they need more help.
“It’s a huge danger. It’s like when you have a very good club team and it stays in place for eight or nine years, winning county titles, and you forget about your underage structures, because only 15 can play for your first team.
“If you take your focus off and start to concentrate on winning games or you concentrate on your minors, you find in a few years you have nothing.” “
Club football in Tipp isn’t strong enough to cover any slippage in the development squads.” Toomey is clear-headed about the task. Has to be. He handles video analysis for Charlie McKeever, who he cannot praise enough.
But McCarthy is free to dream. You sense there will be tears again at Croke Park, whatever the outcome.
“To me, wearing the blue and gold jersey was the ultimate. Managing the team and playing for the team, I got great days out of it. That blue and gold holds a very special place for me. It’s just wonderful to see that blue and gold flutter in Croke Park.
“Tradition by itself won’t win you a whole lot, but there is a tradition of football in Tipp that’s as old as the Association. All the landmark moments in football, Tipp were involved: Bloody Sunday. Tipp won the minor football in the jubilee year in 34 and we were there again in the centenary year.
“And I think we’ll relish this opportunity. When you run at Croke Park, you can be inhibited or inspired. Given our history, I think we’ve enough background to be inspired. And if we do that, I think we can win. I don’t think they’re a bit afraid of this.
“Beating Kerry in an All-Ireland final. Wouldn’t it be fantastic? Wouldn’t it be the ultimate?”