Whatever the turnout for tomorrow’s Munster football final in Killarney, let’s hope that it doesn’t start the same conversation we had after the 2012 final between Cork and Clare about small attendances and dwindling returns for the Munster Council.
The controversial seeding of Cork and Kerry was met with almost universal disapproval three years ago, but it at least guaranteed a decent turnout for Munster final day and about a €500,000 more than the alternative.
The provincial councils would rightly argue that they may, by rule, organise their championships to take into account the relative strengths of the counties within the province and that all these decisions are taken democratically.
But the whole thing did an awful disservice to players.
Still, even under the open draw conditions, in operation since 1991, Tipperary went from 2003 to 2014 without winning a game in the Munster SFC. Since the Second World War, the Clare win of 1992 is still the only beacon of hope for the four other Munster counties trying to make the breakthrough, and the game of football is not being taken seriously by many within those same counties. The message here is that football folk in counties such as Tipperary have to help themselves before anybody else will.
Liam Kearns has a better grasp than most of what’s involved in bringing an emerging county to a provincial final. “Whatever happens on Sunday, we have got to get back to a Munster final next year or the year after. It can’t be 14 years before you get back to another Munster final again because you are just not making progress if that is the case. Then you can start to say you are not going away and are consistently there.”
By making this whole thing out to be a long-term project, Kearns is taking the pressure off his team ahead of tomorrow’s game. Win one against the odds and his players become immortal overnight. Lose and, well, they were ahead of schedule anyway, and there’s always the qualifiers.
And, of course, there’s always next year.
There is still an awful lot riding on tomorrow’s game for Tipperary. With all the talk of those absent from last year’s panel and the dual player issue that erupted once again last March, the win against Cork three weeks ago couldn’t have been better timed for football people in Tipperary.
A rising tide can lift all boats and, although two shocks in a single Munster Championship campaign is unlikely, the Premier County know they must begin to perform with a greater level of consistency when they get this far. The x-factor or the great variable ahead of Killarney is their self-belief and exactly how much it has been swelled by that win against Cork. We won’t know until they hit the 50-minute mark tomorrow.
There are similarities between the Limerick team Kearns brought to the Munster final in 2003 and this Tipperary group. Both squads had a sprinkling of players who were beaten by outstanding Tyrone U21 teams. Both were well able to handle themselves physically. Both had suffered because of conflicting tensions between football and other sports. Both surprised Cork to get to a Munster final and both had to beat a Kerry team in Killarney still smarting from losing the previous year’s All Ireland.
Having tested the waters the first year, it took until their second Munster final appearance before Kearns’ Limerick outfit truly believed they could win outright.
Contrary to the popular narrative, it’s not entirely true to say that Darragh Ó Sé’s series of high catches ultimately denied the underdog its day in 2004. As crucial as all three catches were, some of the choices made and the chances missed by Limerick players that day cost them a Munster title.
Freetaker Owen Keating’s decision to take on a third free kick from a distance that had proven beyond his compass on two previous attempts was just one such choice. I have no doubt if Tipperary find themselves with a bit momentum tomorrow their similarly talented freetaker Kevin O’Halloran will have been advised by Kearns to assess his limits on the day and take the best option for the team.
These are small but important questions for any underdog. If Kerry start fouling out the field tomorrow, do Tipperary keep the ball moving or do they ask O’Halloran to try and nail everything? If goalkeeper Evan Comerford is struggling to find his men from kick-outs, as he did in that period when Cork hit Tipp for 1-6 three weeks ago, should he go long and trust that the lads beyond midfield will scrap more than Kerry will?
Last year, against Kerry in Semple Stadium, Tipp kicked 13 wides when a wayward second-half performance undid them again. Kicking wides is obviously not a choice and it can happen to the best of them, but Tipp’s downfall in the past two championships was their poor choices when pressure was applied by better teams.
There were signs in the 3-15 (it could have been 5-15) against Cork that they are beginning to make the most of their forays upfield. No wides in the first half and only three in total would suggest a marked improvement in this area. Unfortunately for them, with Kerry conceding 0-17 against Clare, you would have to imagine that the defensive side of the game is the area Éamonn Fitzmaurice and his management have given most attention to these past three weeks.
Tipperary will know from their outing in Killarney three years ago, and even from the U21 game against Kerry in Tralee in March, that a conservative approach at the back never really worked for them against the Kingdom. They also know that a full-forward line containing Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney will need to be fed as early and as often as possible. Being on the front foot is what suits the Tipperary psyche best and in Peter Acheson and George Hannigan they have two players who can win enough ball at midfield to ensure that happens.
When the game was up for grabs against Cork, it was Acheson who won the dirty ball that led to Kevin O’Halloran’s winning ’45. Brian Fox and Philip Austin in the half forward line usually take their men on as a matter of instinct and may even get some joy given the lack of physicality in the Kingdom half-back line.
Mark Griffin, a genuinely physical presence in the Kerry backline, won’t have the greatest memories from his encounter with Quinlivan last year, but Griffin also knows that, after a really solid campaign up to now in 2016, he’s a different player than he was 13 months ago.
But different how? And that is one of the many big questions the Kerry camp need to answer. Are they any different than before? Have they taken those painful lessons handed out by Dublin on board? Are they really working as hard as other teams when they don’t have the ball? Are the hunger and unity that appeared out of the blue in the Munster final two years ago still there?
Will fresh opposition and a new challenge really invigorate them, as Fitzmaurice suggested it should during the week? We will assume that they will take the care needed to avoid an ambush, but the Kerry public will want to see more at this stage.
I expect Tipperary will come a’ calling in their Sunday best but with Kerry at home in Killarney and with the added motivation of a first four-in- a-row in Munster since 1990, and a first for Kerry in over 30 years, they should have more than enough to keep home fires burning.
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