Confidence. That’s been the key. Granted, there have been other subtle improvements, but none as profound or important as the collective confidence of this Tipperary squad.
And it is a graph that began climbing from a particularly low base. On the run into last year’s All-Ireland U21 final, Tipperary management and board officials began talking about a first All-Ireland quarter-final appearance by the close of summer and an All-Ireland final appearance by 2020.
The afternoon of Saturday, July 18 provided quite the reality check.
Tyrone rocked into Thurles for a third round qualifier and rocked out again with a 12-point win. Tipperary, on the other hand, trodded out of Semple Stadium without a manager and well aware as to how far they stood off the pace.
Four months would pass before Peter Creedon’s successor was appointed and Liam Kearns was hardly in the job a wet week when he was hit with a raft of departures.
“The squad took a lot of hits throughout the start of the year and so we took a lot from that Cork win,” insists corner-forward Conor Sweeney.
“Once we beat Cork, every lad got serious confidence. And that confidence then started to grow following the win over Derry. We played with that confidence against Galway. The Cork game really kicked us off.”
Sweeney has embodied this growing belief; injured for the Munster quarter-final against Waterford, scored one of their three goals in the shock win over Cork, went scoreless in the Munster final, but bounced back with 0-5 against Derry and 2-2 against Galway.
Have they surprised even themselves by reaching a first All-Ireland semi-final since 1935?
“Before the start of the season, our aim was to get to a provincial final but I think everything has come at once now.
“If you’re asking me for my goal for next year, it’d be to get to a provincial final again because it takes the pressure off. If you get to a provincial final, you’ve one game in the qualifiers. The last few years, we’ve been playing three or four games in the qualifiers and by the time we get to the last 12, the body is just not right.”
Mind you, their provincial final appearance also brought home what does happen when you’re not on your game against top opposition.
“We totally under-performed against Kerry. If you don’t show up against the top sides, they’ll steamroll you. We’ve learned a lot from that day and I think we’re definitely better equipped now for the big occasion.”
Goal number one so against Mayo is showing up.
“We’re confident in our own ability. We’ve been confident for the last few years, it’s just this year we’re after getting exposure. Our panel isn’t big, we use about 17 players for the majority of our games.
Sweeney doesn’t disagree with the suggestion that the close-knit nature of this Tipperary group is a direct consequence of losing so many big-name players earlier on in the season.
“Maybe it did in a way, without even thinking about it too much. When the lads left, it was massive, but we had to draw a line in the sand then because there was too much talk about the lads that were gone.
“It just goes to show that the lads who came in have done fantastic. Yeah, maybe psychologically it did drive us on a small bit without even knowing it.”
Fall or progress on Sunday, the 26-year old Ballyporeen native is happy to be still playing in August. He joined the county set-up in 2010 and there were many a season where it was a struggle to even make July.
“A lot of years before this year, it hasn’t been easy. But I think you just have to find something, there’s something in the back of your head every year saying, ‘keep going’. Every pre-season you have to believe it’ll happen for you at some stage and that we’ll get the breakthrough and thankfully we’ve done it a small bit this year, we’ve made a bit of a breakthrough.”
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