From the moment the teams came onto the field to the final score of the game, everything about Thurles on Saturday was about the one man who couldn’t make it – though it felt to his stand-in that he had.
At 8.20pm last Sunday night, Martin Murphy received a phone call telling him that Liam Kearns, the man he was serving as a selector to the Offaly football team, had passed away. The following day Michael Duignan then called him asking would he step in and lead the team Kearns had been leading. On Saturday Murphy duly led them to a win in Kearns’ old stomping ground of Semple Stadium, though he thinks it was Kearns as much as Ruairí McNamee and Anton Sullivan that toe-poked those added-time goals that helped them get over the line.
“It’s been the toughest week I’ve had apart from a death in my own family,” said Murphy as he and the Offaly team remained on the field afterwards taking in one of the most precious wins they’ve had. “The worst feeling ever. When I got the call on Sunday night I just couldn’t believe it. You’d thought Liam was invincible, the way he spoke, the way he stood; he was such a colossus in the dressing room, such a strong character.
“Only last Sunday morning he was with us, over us, at training in the Faithful Fields [Offaly's Centre of Excellence], in good form. We were talking about having a team picked before Tuesday night. He’d said to me, ‘I’ll give you a buzz tomorrow to finalise it because I want to know what the team is going to be so we can try a few things on Tuesday for the Tipp game.’
“It’s been a very emotional five, six days within the camp. Liam was very close to us all. We had a meeting on the Monday night just to air and speak about how we could support Liam’s family and go to the funeral and all that. We cancelled all training for the week as a mark of respect. We only got together for an hour on [St Patrick’s Day] in the Faithful Fields, just for a bit of food, a light kickaround, a bit of analysis on Tipp.”
Matchday itself was also one big tribute to Kearns, full of little gestures and nods to the man. Some may have even been unintentionally so. Either by accident or design the song playing over the PA while the two teams ran onto the field within seconds of each other was Springsteen’s Glory Days, an ode to how fleeting life is yet with its up-tempo anthemic qualities the kind of song you could imagine Kearns belting out with his penchant for giving any party a song.
Then minutes before throw in, both sides and management teams lined up on their respective 65s, arms linked, and faced one another, in tribute to Kearns, joining the crowd of 800 in offering a round of applause either side of a brief eulogy and a minute’s silence.
As for the game itself, it was played very much in the spirit of what the eloquent chair of the Tipperary football committee foresaw in the match programme that essentially doubled up as a tribute supplement to the late Kearns. “One can only imagine what he [Kearns] would want,” wrote Conor O’Dwyer in his match notes, “but I’m guessing his wish would be for both teams to attack at every opportunity, give it all in the pursuit of victory, and whatever the result, get ready to go again the next day.”
That they did. It was a fine, open game with plenty of endeavour and no little skill with Offaly’s rapid transition game particularly evident and effective. At half-time they led 0-9 to 0-7 and by the 50th-minute mark had extended their lead to four. But Tipp would not relent. Lively sub Mark Russell kicked a couple of points within minutes of his introduction, the ever-steady Jack Kennedy also kicked a brace of points while goalkeeper Michael O’Reilly not just came up the field to kick a couple of dead balls over the bar but initiate several attacks.
As the game entered injury time there was only a point in it, but with Tipp having lost Liam McGrath to a black card, O’Reilly was caught pushing up trying to carve out an equaliser. It meant, aptly enough given who Kearns was coaching only last Sunday, there was a goal, there was a goal, in fact two of them. With O’Reilly in the attacking half of the field, Offaly countered for McNamee to kick into an empty goal and a minute later Sullivan had poached another.
“I know it sounds corny,” Murphy would say after the game, “but when we got the first goal, I was saying, ‘Kearnsy, you’re here beside me.’ And then when we got the second one, I got a bit emotional and turned to the boys [selectors] and said, ‘He’s definitely here with us today.’ Because he wanted to win this game. He wanted to come to Tipperary and show what he was doing in Offaly having previously done it in Tipperary.”
The result means Tipperary are relegated back to the Division 4 they had come from, while Offaly still have a chance of regaining promotion back to Division 2; in fact they will should they beat Down and Fermanagh lose to Cavan.
But as O’Dwyer put it in the match programme, “The terrible sad news that filtered through last Sunday evening puts this Tipp-Offaly game in a much different light. It is now about two teams and two football counties that had the pleasure of Liam Kearns’ company during his all-too-short life.”
J Kennedy (2 frees) and S Quirke (0-3 each), M O’Reilly (1 free, 1 45) and M Russell (0-2 each), C Deeley, M O’Shea and C Cadell (0-1 each).
: R McNamee (1-3); N Dunne (2 frees, 1 mark) and D Hyland (2 frees) (0-4 each); A Sullivan (1-1), B Allen and J Maher (0-1 each).
M O’Reilly; S O’Connell, J Feehan, C Deely; E Moloney, K Fahey, C O’Shaughnessy; P Feehan, J Kennedy; S Quirke, K Ryan, T Doyle; M O’Shea, C Cadell, S O’Connor.
D Leahy for Doyle (35 mins); M Russell for Cadell (43); L McGrath for Feehan (56); M Stokes for O’Shea (61), L Boland for Deely (67).
I Duffy; L Pearson, D Hogan, D Dempsey; R Egan, P Cunningham, C Donohoe; J McEvoy, C McNamee; J Maher, R McNamee, N Dunne; B Allen, A Sullivan, D Hyland.
L Egan for Maher (50 mins); J Bryant for Dunne (56); C Farrell for Allen (67).
J Molloy (Galway)