North Tipperary’s two principal urban centres finally convene for the first time in a county senior hurling final tomorrow at Semple Stadium...
Soft — expletive of your choice — townie — stronger expletive.
The age-old dismissal of the urban GAA man and his teams, men whose bona fides have always been undermined by a critical deficit of experience tramming hay or cutting down sceachs.
Natural scepticism. After all, “in around the town” is a deadly place of sundry attractions where at least one stalwart minor captain from every parish has “gone off the rails altogether”.
But get all those prejudices out of your system now because they’ll be no use tomorrow in Semple Stadium, when north Tipperary’s two principal urban centres finally convene for the first time in a county senior hurling final.
Of course, for GAA purposes, Thurles Sarsfields are Mid Tipp — the current powerbase, the division’s recent achievements assure us. And the Sars’ storied history (33 titles), modern excellence (present in 10 of the last 15 finals, winning five) and generous contributions to the county team have sometimes silenced the townie jibes. For a week or two, now and again.
Tomorrow’s opponents Nenagh Éire Óg, on the other hand, currently contribute to a stark quirk of Tipp hurling; no current regular county man from any of the other big towns — Nenagh, Tipperary Town, Cahir, Cashel, Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir. A peculiarity that nearly wipes out Kilkenny’s population disadvantage.
Of more concern to Éire Óg people, over the years, is a more damning stat — a single county title in the club’s history, achieved in 1995.
The last man to lift the Dan Breen Cup was Conor O’Donovan, one of three starting Nenagh players when Tipperary won the 1989 All-Ireland final.
“Back in my time, John Heffernan, Michael Cleary and myself… we half-took it for granted. Three players from our club (on the county team), no big deal. But if you look back since then, it hasn’t been the case.”
Nenagh men have figured since for Tipp, notably Hugh Maloney, who held Seamus Callanan’s leash tight in the semi-final win over Drom-Inch. The remarkable Kevin Tucker, near 40, the one playing link with ‘95, will be on the bench tomorrow. Paul Ryan, another classy veteran set for a cameo. Michael Heffernan and Paddy Murphy have been in and out for Tipp and are “definitely good enough”, according to O’Donovan. Barry Heffernan was added to the panel this summer but didn’t feature.
But Éire Óg coach John Fitzgerald, from Limerick’s Na Piarsaigh, addressed the scarcity of representation in this week’s Nenagh Guardian. “It’s something that baffles me. Look at any county senior final around the country over the next few weeks, we seem to be the only team with no senior panelist and showing the consistency we have since 2013, you’d question why.”
In that regard, Nenagh’s time may be coming again. Numbers spill out carelessly without structure. During the great Thurles Sars famine, between 1974 and 2005, it was careful work at the Durlas Óg nursery that released the gush of talent that now sees Thurles men pop up everywhere for Tipp. A wealth that presents logistical inconvenience tomorrow, as Sars’ second team face Clonakenny in the intermediate final curtain-raiser.
Three county minor titles in seven years suggest Nenagh are driving this road.
“A lot of the work going on in Thurles is going on as well in Nenagh,” noted Sars selector Paddy McCormack in the Nenagh Guardian.
O’Donovan, who currently coaches the club’s U14 team his son Rory plays on, agrees. “There is great talent coming through — six or seven minor divisional titles as well, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
The long wait for a second title hinders him like an ache.
“I find it more difficult as a supporter to deal with it, than I did as a player. Do I feel a certain element of guilt? I held on for another three years after ‘95 and a good number of playing colleagues hurled for a good few years, always hoping for another one, to back up the one we won.”
There’s good reasons for the delay, neighbouring nemesis Toomevara for one, their conquerors in the 1999 and 2006 finals. But when towns fall, insults rain to a familiar beat. Flaky. Underachievers. Soft. The pick ye have!
“I think a lot of people enjoy saying it to you for the sake of a dig,” says O’Donovan.
“In some ways, it’s fair comment. In others, it’s a little unfair. They’d say there’s great talent there. But I don’t think the talent was there to the extent that people were saying.
“I would say, for years we didn’t quite have the quality of players to win a county title. In my time, we came up short, lost some tight games.”
He nails quickly any sense that a certain urban anonymity dilutes that surge of pride.
“To finally have made the breakthrough for the club was a huge experience. To be captain was a huge honour. Probably the greatest feeling I’ve experienced on a hurling field. Winning at inter-county is the ultimate achievement, but you just felt this an awful lot more on a personal level.
“What really stuck in my mind is being on the pitch at the final whistle. The different types of people out there I mightn’t even have known had been attending matches as supporters. You could be saluting people on the street but you mightn’t know they’re there supporting you, supporting Éire Óg.”
Tapping into that sense of belonging has occupied manager Liam Heffernan, selector on the ‘95 team, who took the helm three years ago. “A club stalwart. A die-hard Nenagh supporter,” O’Donovan calls him.
Along with Fitzgerald, he has bent Nenagh’s curve upwards, after a few lean years. Another county final defeat — by a point — to Loughmore-Castleiney in 2013, a North title last year and county quarter-final defeat to Thurles, again by a point.
Éire Óg performance analyst Brian McDonnell — nephew of Cork supreme supremo Billy Morgan, if you’re into your tracing — credits Heffernan with a mindset change, and a cure for a popular Tipp ailment known as Ah Shure, It’ll Do.
McDonnell has a different take on the numbers game.
“You start off 15 against 15. Maybe you have three or four lads who aren’t connected to the project. Maybe they’re being picked even though they’re not training. Next thing, when it comes down to it with 15 minutes to go, those four lads will disconnect, they will say, ‘screw this’. Then it’s 15 against 11.
“It’s not because they’re bad people or whatever. It just doesn’t mean enough to them.
“On the flip side, if you have 15 guys and three or four to come in… and they all believe they’re representing something important; my town, my family, the people looking on, and I’m going to give everything I have, you can go a long way. At any level. Teams have to be good to beat you.”
Nobody in the know talks softness about Nenagh now. They’re known as hard to beat, which gives O’Donovan pride. “There’s a very strong bond. At this stage, they’d live and die for each other.”
The town looks to have bought in. Civic pride. The sky blue and navy bunting is flying. “Even in premises I mightn’t have thought…,” says O’Donovan.
Guarantees nothing. Around Thurles, the gable murals have added poignancy this year. They will feel a certain responsibility to Jimmy.
“Look at the calibre of opponent we’re facing, we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” O’Donovan says. “But I’d give us a fighting chance.”
This one won’t be won soft.
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