If you told Liam Kearns in the weeks following the departure of Colin O’Riordan, Seamus Kennedy, Steven O’Brien, Paddy Codd and Barry Grogan he’d guide the county to a first All-Ireland semi-final since 1935, he’d definitely have laughed at you.
And then, in his own words, he’d have instructed you to go “lie down in a dark room”.
They’ve overachieved, yes. But what makes their story all the more impressive is the number of hits they absorbed on their journey to the semi-final. Kearns accepts there aren’t too many Division 3 teams who could have coped with the loss of the five players named above, not to mention Liam Casey, Jason Lonergan and Kevin Fahey heading stateside in early May.
Said holes have been plugged by footballers such as Josh Keane, Colm O’Shaughnessy and Jimmy Feehan, U21 players who had never started and finished a senior championship game prior to this summer.
“They have a lot of belief in themselves, they’re very ambitious as well,” said Kearns of his squad.
“They want to take on teams. Would they have said they’d end up in an All-Ireland semi-final? If you’d asked me that six months ago and asked any of the players, we’d be looking at you and saying ‘yeah, right, you’d better lie down in a dark room there or something.’
“Once we knew we were as good as we could be, we were happy that we could give a game to any of them. That’s the way it’s turned out.”
The theory outside the Tipp camp is that Kearns’ side have simply been having a go, playing an attacking brand of football free of sweepers and tactics.
They put up 3-15 against Cork, conceded 2-16; they ran up 1-21 against Derry, shipping 2-17 in the process; against Galway, they hit 3-13 and could have added another three goals.
“To say we’re just giving it a lash wouldn’t be fair, but I’ll leave it for other people to judge. If people think we just come together and then go out and are playing the game as we find it, then fair enough.
“We are getting a lot of praise for the type of football we are playing. We are playing to our strengths as we would see it.”
What the manager doesn’t argue with is the red hot favourites tag to be worn by Mayo on Sunday. Working from 2015 back, their last five seasons read as follows; All-Ireland semi-finalists, All- Ireland semi-finalists, All- Ireland finalists, All-Ireland finalists and All-Ireland semi-finalists. Tipperary’s record during the same period; round three of qualifiers, round four of qualifiers, round one of qualifiers, round four of qualifiers and round one of qualifiers.
“As far as we’re concerned, that’s probably fair comment [that all Mayo have to do is sail into the final]. Mayo, Dublin and Kerry have been the top three teams in the country for the last number of years. We’re a Division 3 team that have come from nowhere so I can’t argue with that. But the only thing I will say is it was the same against Cork, Derry and Galway. We were underdogs in all of those – for the Cork game they were 1/5 and we were 5/1. It is something similar for this game and we’re happy enough with that, we don’t have a problem with it.”
Kearns does believes this Mayo team isn’t as “gung-ho” as in previous seasons.
“They played very defensively against Tyrone – two sweepers on both sides and it was a game of chess. If you’re meeting a team setting up defensively, you’ve got to adapt and in fairness to Mayo, they are adapting this year especially. They’re trying to find a system that works for them. They’re improving – some would say they’re timing their run perfectly.
“Mayo are very adaptable and they adapted to the Tyrone game. I don’t know if they will set up that way against us. Mayo have set up differently against different teams. They do seem to be making a sweeper out of Kevin McLoughlin and he does seem to getting better as they go along. I would say they are certainly not the gung-ho all-out attack team they were, it just wasn’t getting them over the line to win All-Irelands. They have looked hard at that and are trying to find another way to get there.”
Whatever approach Tipp face, Kearns is confident his players will leave Croke Park on Sunday with few regrets.
“We started in Division 3. We started with nobody giving us a chance against Cork and now we are in an All-Ireland semi-final, trying to beat the three best teams in the country so it has been a steep learning curve and to say we are confident is not the way I would put it. I am confident we will perform and confident we are improving, but it will come out in the wash now, we will know whether we have enough to survive with Mayo. It is a big ask, but we are there.”
Away from Mayo and Tipperary football arriving on the big stage, Kearns defended the decision to allow his players consume alcohol on the bus home after the quarter-final win.
“I want them to celebrate after a game. You can’t actually quantify the psychological advantage of doing it.
“Every team does it. One of the Tyrone players, I think Tiernan McCann, said they do. I heard Paul Galvin talking about it. ‘Black magic’ he called it. I want my team to do it because I think it has gone too serious. They are being told what to eat, they are being told what to drink and they are being told what time they can go out at night.
“I think they are being treated as semi-professionals. I just don’t want the fun going out of it.”