It’s all hands on deck for Tipp now. Nicky English turned up on the Mayo News football podcast this week, doing his level best to spook them.
“If you put Kerry jerseys on the Tipp team — you’d be very afraid of that group of players.”
On the face of it, at least, Nicky wasn’t throwing out the K-word to stir deep-rooted neurosis in his hosts. It was just the easiest point of reference for the style of football for which Tipp are being widely lauded.
Everyone wants to plot DNA these days. So how do you map the Tipp football DNA? Darragh O’Se took a few swabs in the Irish Times this week.
“They always landed with notions. They played with a bit of style and weren’t afraid to throw their weight around either.”
John Evans, who got to know them very well, and might have tweaked a genome or two along the way, was on the Sportsjoe.ie podcast, expanding on Tipp’s healthy sense of well-being.
“You do not have to instil belief in Tipperary. You get it from the cradle. You can’t put into lads what God hasn’t given them. But God has been very good to Tipperary in belief.”
Both Kerrymen, it might be noted, could as easily have been describing themselves.
David Power, who led Tipp to the All-Ireland minor title in 2011, is telling again the story of that U16 tournament game in Mitchelstown against Cork in 2010, because you want to hear it again. About how they were eight up at half-time and how he took off the whole team, and how there was uproar with a few followers, but he promised them the other 15 were as good. And they were, with Steven O’Brien among those called in. And how things kicked on from there.
As production lines quickened, O’Brien is now among a second near-15 they’d like to call on.
Power and John Evans and a few others had produced a structure, a plan, a template for Tipp’s underage teams and development squads.
“If you look at any of the teams at underage, Tipp would always play an attacking brand of football,” Power says. “I can’t ever remember, under any management team, one that went with a defensive system.
“This current group of seniors; if a manager went in there tomorrow and tried to play a defensive game, half of them just wouldn’t play. In my eyes, Tipp can’t play that game.
“The enjoyment is gone out of a lot of teams. It’s always about structure, tactics. The corner-forward has to be there when the ball is here. I’m not saying that Tipp are not doing that. But they are trying to get the teams to express themselves. That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Power is keen that success acknowledges its many fathers, including his own.
“Going back to years when Tipp were not successful, they’ve always tried to play the right way.
“When Seamus McCarthy got Tipp to two senior finals in ‘93 and ‘94, when my father (Michael) was a selector, they always tried to play a certain brand of football.
“We never went to put 15 behind the ball. If we lost we lost because we weren’t good enough. People can’t complain about that.
“The Declan Brownes, the Peter Lamberts, everyone that has been involved in Tipperary football, either a mentor, player, or whatever position, they’ve all contributed to this. They kept Tipperary football going when it wasn’t fashionable. Everyone who has done their bit for Tipp football, they can feel very proud of what they see on Sunday and say, ‘yeah, I was part of that process.’”
Peter Lambert is very proud. Tipp’s Browne before Browne, and too briefly with Browne, he won an All-Ireland with Nemo Rangers and a cherished county with Ardfinnan. But five Munster final appearances didn’t bring the fulfilment of a big scalp.
“The last day in Croke Park was one of the best days I’ve ever had. The amount of past players there… they’re a tight bunch.
“It means a lot to players who soldiered for years and didn’t get the breaks, that Tipp are finally up there. They’re representing us all in some way.
“The creative side of the game, the attacking side, has won them fans around the country.
“We go out to score more than the opposition. There’s a naivety about it. But we’ve always been attacking.
“You have to have the players as well. You can’t play a game you don’t have the players to play.
“Sweeney is technically one of the best finishers in the game at the moment. And Quinlivan is probably one of the best all-rounders.
“There aren’t too many counties with players of that calibre.
A green and gold tint? “Obviously, John Evans and Liam Kearns brought the Kerry experience. And it has helped, clearly.
“But Peter Creedon had an awful lot of these lads underage and brought them through to senior and his contribution has to be recognised.
“Colm Browne got us to the 1998 Munster final. And Tom McGlinchey in 2002. And Seamus McCarthy got us to two Munster finals.
“Johnny Mulvihill was there before Seamus, then Mickey Niblock. Mulvihill would have been a sub on the famous Kerry teams. He would have been very positive in his approach. He would have had a Mick O’Dwyer approach to fitness.”
That’s Johnny Mulvihill’s chief recollection of his spell as Tipp boss between 1985 and 1990.
“The first year, we set about bringing up the fitness levels to Kerry standards. Because Kerry under Micko had huge standards of fitness. Tipp’s wasn’t at that level.”
Maybe Kerry football even influenced Tipp hurling.
“We were the first Tipp football team to start training in Thurles. In Semple. Babs Keating came in one night to look at us and he couldn’t understand the fitness we had at that time.”
That first year was spent in a unique player-manager role - Mulvihill was still a player in O’Dwyer’s Kerry panel while he managed Tipp. The adjustment could have been trickier.
“I would say Tipp’s style is similar to Kerry. Cork football is more possession-based. And Tipp always had great fielders. Natural footballers.
“But there was no backdoor. Tipp were hemmed in in Munster and Cork and Kerry were very strong.”
Seamus McCarthy sees beauty in simplicity. But practicality too.
“In my time, we had Anthony Crosse and Peter Lambert. And then you had Declan Browne and Peter Lambert. And really, your best chance of winning was to have those as close to the goal as possible.
“We always had very good midfielders, since the time of Derry Foley and Brian Burke. And then it was the simplicity of getting the ball into a scoring area where you had people of class who could finish it.
He enjoys what he sees from the current bunch. “Simplicity is not a fair word, but there is a purity about the game and I think that’s what the outsiders like.
“They try to play at least two in the full-forward line as often as possible, in contrast to a lot of other teams.
“I would say the way we play harks back to a time of simplicity and innocence but is very much influenced by the teams around us, which were the Kerrys and Corks.”
Simplicity and innocence aren’t words linked too often with any football teams, but McCarthy means a time before “every Junior B team in the country copied the blanket defence”.
“I grew up in the golden era. Obviously, we were miles off what they were producing, but the Kerry team of the 70s would have been one of the great influences.
“Indeed. Cork too, the way they played in ‘89 and ‘90.
“And of course we have to face both of them every year at every grade. You couldn’t avoid them.”
Nicky English played once for Tipp senior footballers, for Johnny Mulvihill, in a promotion play-off with Clare, scoring four points.
A stellar minor footballer, the fancied 1980 Tipp team couldn’t avoid Kerry either. Though he holds onto other memories.
“There is a group of people who have kept Tipperary football going. I remember the great Hugh Kennedy, Lord have mercy on him, from Arravale Rovers. ‘Mr Football’. He drove us to minor matches and minor trials and made the sandwiches for Tipperary teams. Pat Moroney, Petey Savage, these guys are still involved 35 years later, and they will take great pride on Sunday.
“We were brilliantly prepared. Kerry footballers — the likes of Pat Spillane, Bomber Liston, Ogie Moran — were enlisted by those Tipperary football men to come up and coach us every Saturday in Clonmel for the winter of 1979 and 1980.
“I remember them training us and getting to sit down and eat lunch with them after. It was great.
“That was the start of it. That drive probably led to the minor success in 1984.”
That Tipp minor team of 1980 led Kerry by five points late in the day, before Michael McAuliffe bagged three late goals. In midfield for Kerry? Liam Kearns.
The proud football men who plot Tipp’s football DNA have never been too proud to look for help.
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