Struggling to be themselves in hurling’s climate of revolution
Having tasted success in 2010, Tipperary are finding it hard to get back to that level, writes Dermot Crowe
DERMOT CROWE – 23 FEBRUARY 2014 Sunday Independent
LAST month Ger Loughnane gave a characteristically frank, and unflattering, assessment of the Tipperary senior hurling team. He may well have offered a similar diagnosis in a former life from the privacy of a Clare dressing room but on this occasion his views were freely aired at a public event in Tipperary, raising the ire of some of the audience. His core message was that Tipp had gone soft.
This was not the Tipp he knew. It is not the first time Loughnane has shot that particular arrow and it would be fanciful to think that he is removed from the middle ground of opinion. Those in the audience who found his views hard to digest did not necessarily dispute what he was saying. Tipperary, like was said of the Kerry footballers after they lost to Meath in 2001 and Armagh in 2002, have become submissive, too quick to bend the knee. Soft.
There are more reasons than this for Tipperary’s troubles in the period after 2010, yet hardness was a root principle of Premier county teams down the generations – Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men and so on. Soft implies more than an absence of courageous players willing to put the hand up, or go broad-shouldered with relish into the challenge; it is equally reflective of a state of mind. Is there that ruthlessness and player motivation to win more than one All-Ireland?
Tipperary, as is well known, stood on something of a pedestal in September 2010, having stopped the high-speed Kilkenny drive-for-five with an impressively mounted checkpoint. In doing so they suggested that the axis of the hurling world was after tilting, shifting a few miles north to where the dated yet provocative sign on the road states that you are in the home of hurling. That week after they felled Kilkenny with Lar’s three goals you could make a case that you were indeed in the game’s homeplace. The under 21 title that followed a week later in Thurles augured well.
The process of beating Kilkenny, necessary as it was then to win an All-Ireland, demanded a hardness and implacability and by degrees Liam Sheedy saw that it became ingrained. League games like today’s encounter at Nowlan Park became theatres of war, places to make an impression of personal courage and resilience, to sow the seeds of early intransigence and, later, rebellion. In his first season Tipp defeated Kilkenny in the semi-finals of the league on the way to winning the competition. But in March 2009 they were beaten out the gates of Nowlan Park, a bruising assault on mind and body. Twenty points down at half-time, with Kilkenny given an ovation leaving the field at the interval, Tipp lost by 17.
A few months later, they returned for the league final and while they lost again, after extra-time, the manic and feral nature they demonstrated showed they were fed up being knocked around. Nowlan Park brought the temper out of them and a small streak of madness. It took another 18 months to win that All-Ireland; these were all steps on the way to building that necessary character and toughness. In the league in March 2010, they defeated Kilkenny in a twice-postponed fixture. Kilkenny returned the favour, winning by seven in Thurles in 2011, and had eight to spare in Nowlan Park in February, 2012. In August came Tipperary’s most baffling and humiliating episode in Croke Park.
Eamon O’Shea can point to last year’s five-point league win over Kilkenny as a statement of intent, a welcome relief after the harrowing All-Ireland semi-final defeat the previous August before he took charge. When the sides met again in the final Tipp were hardly brushed aside, losing 2-17 to 0-20. In the Munster championship, Limerick outfought them, but then went on to deliver a Munster title on the back of it, and when Tipp met Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in that historic qualifier, with 11 of the team that started the 2010 All-Ireland final there from the throw-in, they weren’t far off the mark, beaten by three.
Still they rely on the majority of the cast that got them to the summit in 2010. Players like Bonner Maher, Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly remain too valuable to discard, and their return is eagerly awaited because of an absence of natural leadership from the next tier.
In terms of the Tipp tradition, Liam Sheedy was more in keeping with John than Jimmy Doyle, a hard and honest hurler who got where he did as an inter-county player with graft and an innate competitive streak. Eamon O’Shea’s role at the time as a forward strategist has often been acknowledged.
Whether that translates into good management material is something Tipperary will find out in time. The decision to bring in Kieran McGeeney attracted much publicity and seemed an admission that players weren’t listening or some vital element was missing. McGeeney would not be seen as soft. If some Tipperary players lost the run of themselves a little after winning the All-Ireland, then McGeeney seemed a good choice to get them grounded because he won an All-Ireland and spent the rest of his career futilely chasing a second. He would see this absence of a second, like many of his Armagh colleagues, as a failure. Is this how Tipperary’s finest see it, a gut-wrenching prospect they must do their utmost to avoid?
A couple of management changes, and three dispiriting seasons later, they are still grappling with issues about the team’s toughness and resilience. There was a time up to the late 1960s when Kilkenny were deemed too soft. The 1967 All-Ireland final win over the Premier did much to dispel that myth, if indeed it was a myth, and there was nothing malleable about most of the Kilkenny men who came after.
Tipperary’s robust nature in the 1960s could not detract from the hurling brilliance throughout their teams, yet the victory in 2010 had been enough – heat of the moment notwithstanding – to have the former county secretary Tommy Barrett rank it as his best since witnessing his first Tipp All-Ireland win in 1949.
Their problem since then is that the reliance on the same players has been troubling. The promise shown in the Waterford Crystal looked set to create ideal momentum for the league but they started last weekend against Waterford with a faltering display. The visitors should, by common consensus, have won the match. A second-half burst from Seamus Callanan and a goalkeeping error allowed Tipperary sneak over the line. None of the new players have commanded a position and John O’Dwyer, impressive against Limerick last summer, loses his place after the Waterford game. Jason Forde is another of those new generation players on whom much is invested and hoped. Nothing so far indicates that Tipperary have enough players streaming in with the force of nature required to make the difference between promise and deliverance.
In 2009, Eoin Kelly gave everything to the blue and gold cause, a modern player with all the technique but a throwback player with all the boldness too, and it seemed indecent or unfair to expect him to be able to reproduce when they went about striving to win an All-Ireland in 2010. They managed it but looking to him four years down the road is not a good reflection on what’s at Tipp’s disposal.
Some misgivings also exist about the style of play, notably the absence of a more direct approach, what some admiringly and semi-nostalgically term “tearaway,” but the current climate is about tightly controlled possession rather than hoofing it. Older, and not so older, Tipp followers wouldn’t mind greater balance however and a little more trade-off, partly to be more entertained, partly out of fear that Tipp in bowing to these trends is losing something inherent.
“Teams all learn from each other, so you have to copy styles,” Eamon O’Shea told this newspaper before Tipp met Kilkenny in the ill-fated semi-final of 2012. “Club managers may want to emulate what they see as being successful. But the really good ones see what can be adapted to their own game. When we set out with Tipp, I wanted to bring in more stick play but yet I had to marry that to the Tipp tradition for an effective style. In other words, we couldn’t be Cork mark two, it just wouldn’t work.
“It has to marry with the traditional element in Tipp hurling, it has to go back to the rooted principles, the hurling had to have the degree of physicality in it. And I think if you try to take that out you might lose the confidence not necessarily of the players but of the hurling fraternity. That is necessary in my view, that has to be with us.”
Winning the confidence of the Tipp hurling fraternity isn’t easy. Having suffered at half-forward against Waterford, Tipp start with Kieran Bergin and James Woodlock on the flanks against Kilkenny today; the pair are not noted marksmen but such are the issues along this line, and Kilkenny’s reputation for no surrender in the same territory, that they may arrive clutching pickaxes rather than hurls.
Noel McGrath is a gifted player whose gifts are often distributed too sparingly. He was outstanding for his club over the winter and his hands-on approach hinted at a broadening dimension to his game. Recent evidence suggests it has not carried over to county. For now he is a player capable of beautiful things but not able or willing to influence games for long spells or to take them by the scruff of the neck. Seamus Callanan is another skilful player but not a grafter. The pressure on O’Dwyer and Forde to make quick progress, as two of the relatively recent additions, and others of like vintage, will be a feature of this spring.
Kilkenny have shown, even last Sunday, a courage and licence to experiment and take risks, Brian Cody recently alluding to a disquieting lack of same last year which they had noted and ran a red circle around. JJ Farrell played in Ennis last Sunday and looked game but has such an unnatural style that it would be long odds that he’d make the cut in a county like Tipperary. Questions invariably follow if the county’s development squad system is producing the right kind of players, or sufficient mix, with a preponderance of what one observer laments as “tippy-tappy”. This, however, was just the approach taken by Clare, a focus on skill to the detriment if necessary of size, and it seems to have worked. There’s no magic formula.
Paudie Maher is another conundrum. His outstanding displays in 2009 and 2010 set a level of expectation which he has not attained or even maintained, still good but not the player expected or that he seemed capable of becoming. All these slippages add up. It’s not enough for Paudie, knowing what’s in him, to do the work of just one man.
Which, in a rather meandering way, is saying that Tipp can be anything they want to be. But there’s the rub. What do they want to be?
Kilkenny v Tipperary, Nowlan Park, TG4, 2.00