Memories of last year’s memorable fourth-round qualifier extra-time win over Derry came flooding back at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday afternoon as the Tipp fans spilled out onto the same pitch to re-live the joy. It was here their championship season gathered force 12 months ago, culminating in an eventful run to the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo.
He doesn’t want to consider too far ahead, but Kearns thinks they’re capable of a little bit more.
“It’s a fantastic achievement by the players to get into the next round and, if we get over that, then we’d have a two-week break and we could become dangerous,” said the Tipperary boss.
“You might start thinking about Croke Park then, but it’s too far away at the moment. At the minute, we are patching up fellas and giving them 20 minutes here or there.
“You could have made changes in the first half, but the players I wanted to bring on didn’t have that kind of time in them, so we had to hold our nerve and wait.”
Despite missing four of the team that started against Mayo and carrying a few injuries, Tipp staged a remarkable fightback from 0-12 to 0-6 down at the break.
The inspirational introduction of Michael Quinlivan and Philip Austin revived their challenge. Goals in the last quarter from Conor Sweeney (penalty) and Robbie Kiely clinched it, but the impact of Austin — now recovered after a groin injury — really swung the momentum Tipp’s way.
“Philip Austin hasn’t played in four months, but he was superb in the second half,” Kearns said. “He started to run at them and they weren’t able to handle it.
“Michael’s [Quinlivan] injury is a six or seven-week injury and it was only last Thursday he felt there might be 10 minutes in him. We knew he couldn’t come outside the square really, but he gave the boys a lift coming on.”
Cavan dominated the first half, with Gearoid McKiernan bossing midfield and they had support runners everywhere, seven players kicking 11 points from play.
Tipp lacked penetration up front and relied heavily on Conor Sweeney. He was double-marked, though he carved out a good goal chance for Brian Fox, which smashed off the crossbar.
Cavan had their shooting boots on and hit five points in a row between the 19th and 27th minute to take what looked an unassailable lead.
McKiernan’s bursting runs and finishing power stood out, with Tomas Corr, Dara McVeety, Conor Moynagh, Cian Mackey and wing-back Martin Reilly also on target with two classy, long-range points.
Somehow, Tipp found a bit of resolve. They were a team transformed after the break, reeling off four points in a row within eight minutes of the restart.
Cian Mackey lifted the siege with a solo run and drew the free, which Niall McDermott pointed to stretch Cavan’s lead to three. It was a temporary reprieve.
Cavan played two divisions above Tipperary in the spring and it took the visitors a while to acclimatise to the speed of their transition, but by midway through the second half, they were bang up to the pitch of the game.
Austin kicked the equaliser to make it 13 points each after 54 minutes and the momentum was all with Tipp now. They got a penalty a minute later, when Austin was fouled in the square by Jason McLoughlin — a harsh enough call — and Conor Sweeney tucked the ball away superbly.
McKiernan ended Tipp’s run of 1-3 without reply with a free for shell-shocked Cavan, but the tide had turned.
Liam Casey started to get to grips with McKiernan and Cavan collapsed in midfield, fading badly in the second half, while Tipp grew stronger and stronger.
With Cavan ball-watching, Austin and Sweeney set up Robbie Kiely who buried a second goal after 62 minutes.
Quinlivan, clearly still hampered by his ankle injury, stuck close to goal but managed to wriggle free to score one excellent point.
The home side fought on through five minutes stoppage time and got to within two points, but Tipp held on to book a place in this morning’s Round 3B draw. Armagh, Monaghan, and Carlow are waiting.
For Cavan, the summer is over and much to ponder for Mattie McGleenan who admitted he was “gutted” to have surrendered such a lead.
“I thought they were absolutely fabulous in the first half, it was some of the best football we have played all year, but at this level you’ve got to turn up for both halves.
“For the first 15 minutes of the second half every kickout we tried, long, short, sideways, we weren’t there. That, ultimately. was the critical time of the game.
“I thought the referee gave them a couple of fairly soft frees right at the start of the second half that gave them a bit of momentum, but the other side of it, too, was we couldn’t win a ball and that ultimately was our undoing.”
G McKiernan (0-3, 1f); M Reilly, T Corr, C O’Reilly, N McDermott (2f), S Johnston (1f) (0-2 each); C Mackey, C Moynagh, D McVeety, P Faulkner, T Galligan (0-1 each)
C Sweeney (1-5 (1 pen, 5 frees); R Kiely (1-1); J Kennedy (0-3, 2 frees); K O’Halloran (0-2, 1 free); B Fox, P Austin, M Quinlivan, D Foley (0-1 each)
R Galligan; P Faulkner, K Clarke, J McLoughlin; J McEnroe, N Murray, M Reilly; G McKiernan, T Corr; C Mackey, C Brady; C O’Reilly, C Moynagh, L Buchanan, D McVeety
N McDermott for Brady (12), R Connolly for Buchanan (HT), T Galligan for Corr (46), J Dillon for McDermott (57), S Johnston for O’Reilly (60), N Clerkin for McVeety (BC, 65)
C Kenrick; C O’Shaughnessy, A Campbell, E Moloney; B Maher, R Kiely, J Feehan; L Casey, G Hannigan; J Keane, L Boland, B Fox; C Sweeney, K O’Halloran, J Kennedy Subs: D Foley for Boland (23), P Austin for O’Shaughnessy (HT), M Quinlivan for Hannigan (46), L McGrath for O’Halloran (68), K Bergin for Maher (70)
Fergal Kelly (Longford)