Tipperary in a football semi-final still doesn’t make sense - but they've earned it

Have you ever seen the 1986 movie ‘Hoosiers’ with Gene Hackman that tells the story of a tiny high-school from the small town of Hickory, located deep in basketball-mad Indiana.

Basically, it’s about a coach who brings a different approach to preparing a team in a school so small, and so lacking in resources, they can only suit seven players for games. 

At the beginning of the season, their best player withdraws to concentrate on his studies and leaves them severely and unexpectedly short-handed.

Needless to say, in a movie loosely based on actual events from another school years earlier the small town underdog Hoosiers go on to defy all odds and win the state championship by beating the previous year’s winners in the final with a last second buzzer beater.

Fairytale stuff. Too far-fetched for real life?

Those Hoosiers had nothing on what Tipperary are doing right now. 

How would you have reacted if somebody told you six months ago that Tipperary would be in the All-Ireland football championship semi-final against either Mayo or Tyrone and with a fair chance of progressing?

I’d say very few would have nodded in agreement.

Even now, six months down the track, it still doesn’t make much sense. 

How could it? 

Tipperary are in the last four in the race for Sam, and the craziest thing about it… I’m not sure they’re finished with their scalp-taking just yet.

Liam Kearns had a pop before this year’s Munster final about what he perceived as a ‘blasé’ attitude to his side’s victory over Cork and felt his players didn’t get enough credit for that performance and result. 

They then went out, and despite a perfect start with a first- minute goal, got stuffed by Kerry by 10 points and never looked capable of causing the upset.

Still, Kearns was unwavering in his assessment of his team - they deserved more respect for the way they played, even in defeat.

But respect is a funny old thing. It’s not something you want to have bestowed upon you by somebody else because you ask for it. It is hard earned through your deeds and your actions.

Players and teams acquire respect for displaying a sustained ability to perform to a high level and quarry out results against good opponents. 

To that end, Tipperary had done scarcely little, save for barely avoiding relegation to Division 4 of the League, as well as managing to lose several of their most talented footballers for different reasons.

From the outside, it looked like guys scurrying for the life-rafts to abandon a sinking ship. Those same fellas must be filled with some conflicting cocktail of pride tinged with a real pang of regret when watching the heroics of the past fortnight.

Tipperary managed to beat a Cork side struggling to find its identity and subsequently rolled over to that double-digit humbling in the Munster final. 

Hardly awe-inspiring stuff. 

But maybe Kearns was right all along. 

Maybe he knew it before the rest of us, or at least was hoping he knew… that the group of players in his dressing room were capable of creating a new culture of pride and authenticity in Tipperary football. Maybe he craved respect for them so much because they weren’t even getting it from the majority of people in their own county.

With the character-building win over Derry in the Qualifiers, they let everybody know they were much more than just a boxer packing one lucky punch. 

But with their destruction of Galway’s much vaunted midfield and defence on Sunday, they’ve forced everybody to sit up and take notice. These boys are the real deal.

Don’t forget it was probably John Evans who started this Tipperary ball rolling, before Peter Creedon took the baton and carried it on further, but neither could ever quite get over the finish line. Liam Kearns has taken it now and brought Tipp somewhere they have never been in living memory.

The difference between this outfit and previous Tipperary teams I played against - who would have huffed and puffed their way through championship games - is the level of genuine attacking quality they possess. 

In Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney they have two of the highest quality forwards left in the championship.

Sweeney, in particular, is so smooth and deceptive. His gangly frame makes him look like he shouldn’t be quick, but he always seems first to the ball. His clever movement leaves defenders dazed and confused and chasing shadows.

When he does have ball in hand, the guy has been a near flawless decision maker this season and as sweet a kicker off his left peg as you’ll find.

Quinlivan, too, continues to develop into a real leader for this team. Against Derry, and again last weekend, the most impressive aspect of his play was his constant desire for ball.

I don’t mean that in the juvenile way, where the Under 8 runs around blindly looking for a touch. But Quinlivan roams from the edge of the square out to midfield because he’s constantly looking to create, and make things happen.

Leadership isn’t all about shouting and making speeches in dressing rooms. Leaders want the ball, especially when their team is under the cosh, like they were when Galway got off to a hot start and led by four points to one. 

Up stepped Quinlivan with the early game-changing goal. People have latched onto Tipperary like they do with any good underdog story. But supporting them is made easier by the expansive swashbuckling way they play.

They have lit up a football championship being overly consumed with negativity. And their story is one to confound the naysayers and those that would suggest the likes of Tipperary should be locked in a B championship. 

Our structures still need tweaking, but Tipperary have ensured whatever modifications come down the line must allow for every team to have a crack at being like the Hoosiers in any given season.

Liam Kearns no longer has to ask for respect for his players, they’ve well and truly earned it at this stage.

I’m not sure Tipperary are finished with their scalp-taking just yet


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