Mike Quirke: Clare and Tipperary display the indomitable spirit of the underdog

So what do you know? Maybe Munster isn’t the lopsided battleground that everybody thought it was. 

Provincial minnows Clare and Tipperary continue to make noise and completed a remarkable double over Roscommon and Derry respectively last Saturday to qualify for their first All-Ireland senior football championship quarter-finals in Croke Park.

The victory produced so many storylines…

Clare’s Gary Brennan is eventually being recognised (nationally) for what we have long known down here — the guy is a monster of a footballer. Gary can leap into an aerial scrum and come down unscathed with the ball. But it doesn’t end there. He also has the football ability and wheels to blow by you and make you look like you’re running in mud as he canters away and strokes it over the bar. Before people talk about leadership in Gaelic football, they should sit down and watch this guy go to work for 70 minutes and take note of the energy and belief he gives his colleagues, when the need is greatest.

Tipperary had plenty of their own heroic performances on a day that Derry pushed them all the way to the 75th minute.

Conor Sweeney put on an exhibition of inside forward play for the winners that was just magic to watch.

For a young guy, in a high-pressure situation, he never stopped showing and looking for the ball to make things happen. His movement was leaving defenders dizzy but his finishing was completely different class.

His display was up there with anything Brogan or Gooch would produce in those circumstances. Tipperary haven’t seen the like since Declan Browne hung up the boots.

Tipperary’s story is a most remarkable one in a season where so many good players exited their panel at the start of the season. To progress to their first quarter-final is a testament not only to the work done by Liam Kearns and his senior side, but also to those unheralded underage coaches in Tipperary who have developed their young players over the years through their clubs, development squads, minor and U21 teams. Their success has not just fallen from the sky in 2016.

Theirs is a story developed by being patient and playing the long game.

For all the bitching about the inadequacies of the championship structures, and the inequality of Kerry’s potentially softer path to reaching an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin by playing Clare, Tipperary and Clare again; that ain’t Kerry’s fault people.

Nor is it Clare’s either, for that matter.

But would it be more palatable if Kerry played Roscommon in a quarter-final? Or Derry? Would that have somehow made the championship better? It’s been this way for years. The funny thing about sport is, the best team usually wins out. And Clare and Tipperary were the best teams last weekend and fully deserve their place in Croke Park this weekend. The fact Clare face Kerry again is an unfortunate outcome that really should have been avoided through an open draw, but make no mistake, Clare are there because they deserve to be.

Look at it this way, how many other teams had to beat two All-Ireland quarter-finalists to win their provincial title this season?

It’s hard not to be happy for Clare and Tipperary — unless you’re from Roscommon or Derry, I suppose. Everybody loves a good underdog story.

When I started in college in Tralee IT, it was the year after they had won their third Sigerson cup in a row. Football was the only show in town. But during my stint, after the first year, the talent pool evaporated significantly, and with it went our chances of adding further silverware to the trophy cabinet. In those lean years, it transformed from a team of nearly all inter-county stars to a bare smattering of two or three guys who were involved at the highest level.

One of those rowing against the tide with me was Clare’s Enda Coughlan.

We played about three years together on some bad teams for the college. We went into games against vastly superior opposition where he carried the fight like a demented dog chasing a ball long after the game was gone from us.

I remember talking to him about it one night. I wondered how he remained so driven and enthusiastic playing for Clare when they were lambs to the slaughter, more often than not. Where was the joy to be found in that?

It wasn’t so much his football that jumped out at you, but his attitude and tenacity were on a different level. He was used to being the underdog, being written off at every turn and not supposed to win games. This was nothing new to him. But it somehow never managed to diminish his effort or drive to succeed. I played against him a few times in Munster and that dogged spirit never left him. And he was playing on Clare teams in those days that were nowhere near as competitive as they are today.

He tore his cruciate towards the back end of July 2014, and was operated on in September. He was back in the mix with Clare by March the following season.

Guys like that, who stay the course and endure the really dark days and don’t disappear to America or pack it in to play golf because they have no chance of winning an All-Ireland in counties like Clare become the beating pulse of your dressing room.

I was delighted for him in particular last Saturday. He and his teammates deserve all the plaudits thrown their way. Clare reaching the last eight of the competition is an over-achievement by Colm Collins and his management. But it was bound to happen eventually when you have a committed group of high character guys like Enda Coughlan who just don’t know when to stop fighting.

Club players remain without a voice in GAA

So the GAA and the GPA have struck a significant deal that seems, on the face of it, to be very good for all inter-county players. The biggest aspect of the €6.2 million a year agreement sees the GAA providing €2.5 million or 15% of net central commercial revenue in each of the three years of the agreement.

Players will benefit through a long overdue 15 cents per mile increase in travel expenses, as well as a rather novel nutrition allowance, and a new working group to properly examine the growing demands being placed on inter-county players.

One of the more pleasing aspects of the agreement for me was the inclusion of a special fund of €200,000 per year to specifically support “surgical interventions” for former inter-county players like they do in Aussie Rules football. I wrote before that it can be a shock to the system for recently retired players who may not have the safety net of health insurance when they leave the inter-county bubble.

Many are left with a broken or damaged body and then face the financial burden of paying for surgeries out of their own pockets.

It’s heartening to finally see a fund set up to help guys who desperately need it.

One thing is also abundantly clear from this agreement — and we’ve know it really since their creation — the GPA is about inter-county player welfare.

The ordinary club player will remain without a voice until they somehow form a union and fight for their cause in the same way the GPA has for the county men.


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