But as they got down to a series of stretches, a voice from their throng rang out “What do you think of that, Joe Brolly!” to a chorus of chortles. The comment was in reference to Brolly and Colm O’Rourke’s laughs at half-time of The Sunday Game’s coverage of the Munster final when the pundits were asked by Michael Lyster if it was a good game of football. Tipperary were trailing 2-7 to 1-4 at the time.
Brolly has since claimed their amusement was the result of an off-air joke but it was the perception that counted. Just as Clare’s hurlers used Nicky English’s apparent smile after scoring against them in 1993 to rile them, Tipperary had extracted motivation from Brolly and O’Rourke’s supposed dismissal of them.
Damian Barton won’t be thanking his fellow Derryman Brolly for that having seen Tipperary once more recover from a late rally to upset the odds. Five points up, the Munster runners-up were in control on the hour mark but were then hit for 1-3 in six minutes. Eoghan Brown’s goal was followed by a Danny Heavron point in the final minute of regulation time and all Derry needed to do was hang on.
But Tipperary weren’t finished. Kevin O’Halloran fired over a free after Chrissy McKaigue fouled Michael Quinlivan and then Conor Sweeney twisted and turned for the first of two points that sent the Tipperary faithful into a frenzy.
Considering that five-point advantage, built around O’Halloran’s 48th-minute goal gifted to him by Thomas Mallon’s errant clearance, and four-point lead they had manufactured after 19 minutes, a defeat would have haunted Tipperary. They mightn’t have been as composed as Derry at times but they were the better team in general play. That finish, though, ensured there would be no ‘what ifs’. “It’s down to the players, it’s all about the players,” said Liam Kearns. “It’s all about heart and commitment. The players won that game, nobody else. I take no credit for the last 10 minutes, it was all down to the players. You can’t coach that. It’s either in them or it isn’t and it is in them.” Tipperary were one point down at the break, 1-8 to 0-10, although it would have been worse but for O’Halloran (free) and Quinlivan scoring the last two points of the half. Derry fired an unanswered 1-4 between the 22nd and 32nd minutes, the last of the scores a Mark Lynch goal after the dazzling Heavron had made a penetrating run from close to midfield.
“I thought we were throwing away the game at that stage,” admitted Kearns. “We were killing ourselves like against Kerry in the Munster final; we had chances and didn’t take them. The likes of Kerry and the bigger teams will punish you at the other end and that’s what was happening. Every time they went up the other end, they were getting scores and we were missing easy chances (four wides in as many minutes). I told the boys at half-time we dug the hole for ourselves and we’ve got to dig ourselves out of it, and fairness they did.” Facing the wind in the second half didn’t make matters any easier for Tipperary but a couple of switches, particularly Quinlivan moving to midfield, worked a treat for them and they were ahead once more seven minutes in. Philip Austin’s drives at the Derry defence were providing dividends just as much as the willingness of Bill Maher to go forward almost at will. “We couldn’t cope with the hard running from the half-back line, in particular, all day,” conceded Barton. “They kicked on. We left ourselves too much to do.”
This game was undoubtedly the best of the championship thus far but there was an obvious innocence to it. Some of the fouls committed, particularly from Derry, were inexcusable. Two points up going into the last minute, they should have pulled all but one or two forwards back. They didn’t, and paid the price.
The entertainment value was surprisingly not beset by a seriously perplexing refereeing performance. Marty Duffy left so many baffled and it’s just as well he didn’t have a say in the result. Even in victory, Kearns couldn’t help but remark on the officiating.
“I’ve to look at the match on television because I couldn’t make sense of some of the decisions. I don’t want to talk out of turn, I will give the benefit of the doubt and I’m going to look at this match on television again but I really was perplexed.”
Informed his team had won half the amount of frees Tipperary were awarded, Barton shrugged: “Marty looked at the steps fairly consistently and he blew them up as well. I just thought some of the contact frees were easy enough. There were a couple of ridiculous scenarios — it’s a long time since a linesman has blown a ball for being too short. But they capitalised from that. Those fine margins make a difference at the end. There is something seriously wrong there. I don’t think we are a negative team, a dirty team. But to have 50% more frees again, maybe I will have to look at the video before I comment further.”
In the build-up, Kearns had called into question the decision to fix the game for Cavan.
“My problem was Derry played here last Saturday. I was at it above in the stand watching it. They’ve played here regularly — we haven’t played here in something like five years. How is that a neutral venue then?”
In the end, it was inconsequential. Tipperary football made one more giant leap. Brolly and O’Rourke will have to take note.
K. O’Halloran (1-5, 0-4 frees, 0-1 45); M. Quinlivan (0-6, 4 frees); C. Sweeney (0-5); J. Keane (0-2); P. Austin, P. Acheson, B. Maher (0-1 each).
M. Lynch (1-4, 0-3 frees); D. Heavron (0-4); N. Loughlin (0-3); E. Brown (1-0); J. Kielt (0-2, 1 free); E. Lynn, E. Bradley, L. McGoldrick, C. Bradley (0-1 each).
E. Comerford; C. McDonald, A. Campbell, J. Feehin; B. Maher, C. O’Shaughnessy, R. Kiely; P. Acheson (c), G. Hannigan; J. Keane, M. Quinlivan, B. Fox; K. O’Halloran, P. Austin, C. Sweeney.
A. Moloney for G. Hannigan (h-t); S. Leahy for R. Kiely (67); M. Hanley for C. O’Shaughnessy (70+4).
K. O’Halloran (black card, 70+5).
T. Mallon; O. Duffy, B. Rogers, C. Mullan; K. McKaigue, C. McKaigue (c), C. McAtamney; C. McFaul, N. Holly; E. Lynn, D. Heavron, N. Loughlin; J. Kielt, E. McGuckin, M. Lynch.
N. Toner for E. Lynn (43); C. Bradley for J. Kielt (50); E. Bradley for N. Holly (52); L. McGoldrick for O. Duffy (56); E. Brown for E. McGuckin (62); N. Forrester for D. Heavron (inj, 70+3).
M. Duffy (Sligo).