FOR likely starters Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher (not related, by the way) and Noel McGrath, and for all the other half-dozen or so U21s on the Tipperary panel, facing Kilkenny in this Sunday’s All-Ireland senior hurling final could be a daunting prospect.
If the experience of selector Michael Ryan is anything to go by, however – experience he is certain to pass on to the current crop of Tipp tyros – that’s unlikely to be the case.
Back in 1991, the last time Tipp and Kilkenny met in an All-Ireland final, Ryan was just out of his teens, a colt who had made his championship debut earlier that season against Limerick.! “1991 is a long time ago now and I was only a youngster. I’d say at the time the significance of playing Kilkenny, and of beating them (Tipperary won by four points, 1-16 to 0-15, courtesy of a very fortuitous Michael Cleary goal, from a mis-hit free), went over my head.
“For me, it was all about getting a jersey in what was an excellent Tipperary squad and that was the hardest work I had to do, not concentrate on who we were playing.” Not that the day passed in a blur for young Ryan – the contrary, in fact. “I remember it clearly, it was a fantastic day. You have to remember where Tipp were at the time. We were after beating Antrim in the final of 1989 but we hadn’t really taken a big scalp, and that’s with all due respect to Antrim. That was a big thing in Tipp.”
The last few remarks came unprompted from Ryan, but they are significant. Up to 1971 Tipperary were the bad boys of hurling, the kingpins; with 22 All-Ireland titles, they led both Cork (21) and Kilkenny (17) on the honour roll. Since then, however, the fall-off in Tipperary hurling has been catastrophic, a mere three titles added. The first of those was that win over Antrim, 1989, and yet, where you would have expected it to be celebrated unconditionally in Tipperary, it wasn’t the same as a win over Kilkenny. 1991 changed that.
Ryan went on to enjoy a long career with Tipperary, finished in 2000, but there would be no more All-Ireland titles. A year later, 2001, and under the management of Nickey English, hero of the ‘89 and ‘91 seasons, Tipp won their last senior crown, but Ryan was only a spectator. Now, he’s back in harness, a surprise call to arms from an old comrade, but one which, while it didn’t come out of the blue, did come out of a fog of sorts. “I hadn’t done any management before this, but the day after we had finished up – Liam and myself were broadly the same age and finished playing together in 2000 – we went for a few drinks. I overheard Liam at one stage saying he’d like to manage the Tipp senior team and I leaned over and said, ‘Liam if you ever get that job, I’ll do it with you.’ Whether I had too much drink or he did, he rang me seven years later. I was delighted. It’s something you only get to do, I’d say, once in your life; you embrace it and try and do it to the best of your ability.” !
That too should be the attitude of the players, reckons Ryan, young or old – enjoy it because this chance may not come again. Back in 1991, with finishers of the ability of Johnny Leahy, Nickey English, Pat Fox, Michael Cleary, a superb centre-forward in Declan Ryan, with an outstanding keeper, superb defence and midfield, a top coach in Babs Keating, Ryan probably felt he was going to be back in All-Ireland final after final.
He never reached another. Take it while you can, that’s the message he’ll be preaching to the two Mahers and Noel McGrath this week, that’s the message he’ll be trying to get across to all these in blue and gold. “The whole point is to emphasise to guys to play for the now. Tomorrow isn’t a promise to any of us, you don’t know when or if you’ll play in another All-Ireland final. But I don’t think you should overemphasise that stuff – just emphasise to guys to enjoy it, and all things being equal, please God we’ll get another go at it.”
Live, enjoy, that’s the message from Ryan, the message to all the doomsayers especially, those who constantly bemoan the state of hurling. Look at the likes of Joe Canning in Galway, Richie Hogan in Kilkenny, Darach Honan in Clare, not to mention Tipp’s own teenager, Noel McGrath.
“Hurling is going to get even better, because there’s so much talent out there. I suppose our panel would even reflect that, we have 10 U21s on our senior panel and that’s a tribute to the quality being brought through. There’s a lot of unseen work going on at development level and you must mention the club structures. My own club, Upperchurch-Drombane, contested their first divisional senior final ever last Sunday. We didn’t win it but it just shows you what’s going on in my home club. The difference is the level of skill has come up and young fellas are putting in the work, they’re all very athletic and if that continues, then success will follow.”
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