Raising the bar in Tipp

There were only 780 people at the Tipperary SFC final and as most GAA fans from the Premier would tell you, “most of them were let in for free”.

It hasn’t been the chosen game in that neck of the woods for a long time but still, Clonmel Commercials have every chance of beating Kerry kingpins Dr Crokes in their home patch in Killarney tomorrow. Why?

Passion. The club has a grá for the big-ball game as deep and abiding as anything found in the Kingdom, a passion personified in Commercials’ club chairman Ned Brophy.

“If I live to 100 — and I won’t — I’ll never, ever experience again a day like September 18 last year when Tipperary won the minor All-Ireland football title,” he said.

“To see Tipperary footballers winning an All-Ireland, on All-Ireland final day. Nothing I’ve experienced has ever compared with that.”

Not even the senior win by the hurlers the year before, when they finally toppled mighty Kilkenny? After all, isn’t Tipperary the county that prides itself on the title ‘The home of hurling’?

“No, nothing, not by a country mile. I remember so many hard-luck stories in Munster, leading Kerry at minor and at U21 by a few points with minutes to go but losing. To see Tipp then winning an All-Ireland football final...

“Maybe we’ll see Tipperary winning a senior one day, though I won’t hold my breath. The only thing that might top it is if Commercials can win in Munster, and that’s the ultimate aim for the moment for all clubs in Tipperary. Munster hasn’t been breached yet.

“We’ve come close. Beaten in four finals, Fethard came close, so did Moyle Rovers, but none of us crossed the line. Our greatest misfortune came in 1990, against Dr Crokes, as it happens. Two games down in Fermoy, beaten eventually in extra-time of the replay but I’d say even the most die-hard Crokes supporter would admit we should have won, both days.

“The good thing is that the majority of this team weren’t born then, a very young side. Gooch was a mascot for Crokes that year and they had a lot of very good players, the likes of Pat O’Shea, Connie Murphy. They were beaten by Salthill in the All-Ireland semi-final afterwards but won the All-Ireland the year after, which shows how close we were. I’m haunted still over it!”

How about that attendance for the county final? Less than 800 in a year when Clonmel Commercials were trying to regain top honours after a wait of 10 years? Clonmel is the biggest town in South Tipperary, Commercials a football stronghold, second only to neighbours Fethard in the roll of honour (15 titles against 21). It’s a GAA county which showed little interest in the match.

“I don’t know, that’s the honest answer. It was only when I got involved I realised how difficult it is to keep it all going.

“Tipperary is a hurling county, that’s the truth. The attendance at the county football final was paltry. People can use the excuse of the bad day but that had nothing to do with it. Soccer is a big sport in the town, hurling is here with our sister club, St Mary’s, rugby is here.

“Clonmel Town are very successful in soccer but even they have a small following. I don’t know what it’s down to, just general apathy towards their own. Next June for example, when Tipperary meet Limerick in the Munster SHC, Clonmel will be like any other town in Tipperary, people coming from every street and road to meet buses and cars to head off to the match, decked out in blue and gold.

“But if you were to tell them the meeting-point was the GAA pitch, I’d say most of them would have to ask for directions, and that’s the truth. There’s a huge following for hurling and less so for football, but St Mary’s, Commercials and Clonmel Óg [the rival crosstown club], even between us all we have a very small following on a week-to-week basis. If we bring 100 people to Killarney I’d say that’s as much as we’ll have.”

And yet, set against all that, the standard of football in the county is high, likewise the standard with the club itself. “We have massive numbers at juvenile level. I remember the first day I got involved in juvenile training, about 15 years ago; it was a Friday afternoon, around four o’clock, they trained for an hour or so and that was it for the week.

“Now even our U12 team trains twice a week, gets almost year-round coaching. Brian White, the Wexford man, former All-Ireland referee, he’s been living in Clonmel for many years, is the chairman of the juvenile club. He and Tomás Ó Ceallaigh, formerly of Newcastlewest but won a county with us as well, they’ve done great work with the club.

“Even this week, all the championships long over, our U14s are training, getting ready for next year though they won’t have a match until next April. It’s constant development. They have a football in their hands 11 months of the year and that’s paying off.

“Last year we had two teams at every level from U10 up to U16, then minor, U21, junior, intermediate and senior. The numbers are high and because we’re that bit successful we’re holding our numbers. We’ve just won four county U16 titles in a row, three minors, so the success is coming — football is huge in the club at the moment.”

How big?

“Well we’re working on our first ever Christmas annual and we discovered this figure. Currently, we have 35 players involved with Tipperary teams at various levels, men and women. I wonder how many clubs could match that?

“We had seven on the All-Ireland winning minor panel last year, six on the field for the last 12 minutes. That’s some record for one club on All-Ireland final day!”

So, even in the enforced absence of the county final goalscoring hero Colman Kennedy (contract-tied to Cork City) and the suspended Niall Kelly, you want to know why Commercials have a chance tomorrow? There it is. Write them off at your peril.

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