Tipperary lost an All Ireland minor football title on a weekend when Ireland lost Con Houlihan. Worryingly our winning roll has come to a halt. Within a week now our footballers have taken a double whammy, the seniors not unexpected but the minors definitely so. Hopefully the trend doesn’t carry through to Wednesday when the U21 hurlers attempt that clean sweep of provincial titles on their visit to Ennis.

Meanwhile the only major club action at the weekend was in Dundrum on Monday evening when Eire Og confirmed expectations with a big win over Cashel K.C. in that delayed West semi. Clonoulty await in the final.

Retaining that All Ireland minor football crown was always going to be difficult though we hardly expected to exit to Connacht runners-up, Mayo. I suppose the team was making a habit of coming from behind and there was always going to be a day when the comeback simply wouldn’t happen, especially when you’re a man short. Still two Munsters and an All Ireland is a rich harvest for this generation of footballers and will always set them apart. With Kerry edging out Connacht champions, Roscommon, wouldn’t it be ironic now if the Kingdom went on to claim the title after we beat them twice in Munster?

Anyway hopefully our winning roll has only paused and that Wednesday will see a return to better fortune with the U21s in Ennis.

The first of the All Ireland semis on Sunday will see Tipperary as interested neutrals in the battle between Cork and Galway – we’ll have an interest in the minor affair too between Clare and Dublin. This senior semi is a fascinating line-up with a rich prize on offer to two counties who haven’t been on the September programme for some years now.

Galway are the bookies’ fancy in this one but it will be fascinating to see if they can follow up their Leinster final form or will that Kilkenny game  go down as yet another one-day wonder from the Tribesmen. They won’t need reminding that they’ve a history of these one-day spectaculars so I suspect there’ll be an element of apprehension among the fans as they square up to Cork.

In fairness to Anthony Cunningham he introduced a youth policy and stuck with it even when they hit bad days during the league campaign. As a consequence he now has quite a healthy mix of upcoming wannabes slotting in beside a more established core of players. Besides with a re-invigorated Joe Canning leading the attack and given the boost of that Leinster final they certainly have the wind in their sails to drive on here.

From a Cork perspective it’s an ideal draw. Back in Croke Park they’ll feel capable of taking out Galway any time though a forensic examination of their route to Croker will raise issues about their potential at this stage of development. During both league and championship games thus far JBM has juggled with options seeming a bit unsure of his best combination. Full back McDonnell, for example, was dropped after the league but reintroduced for the qualifiers – he did very well against Waterford.  Ditto with Sean Og and Gardner too has been in and out, surprisingly unused on the one-point loss to Tipperary. Eoin Cadogan’s dual involvement is probably affecting his impact and some of the younger players like Sweetnam, Lehane and Coughlan have been trying to find their feet with mixed form.

Through it all one suspects that Cork are very much a work in progress. Against Waterford they were distinctly lucky to escape to victory in those final minutes and they’ll surely need something stronger on Sunday if they’re to progress. Sufficient unto the day has been their form during the qualifiers but more is needed now.

Everything considered Galway should be further down the road than Cork at this juncture but it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

Meanwhile to local business and Eire Og’s easy (in the end) win over Cashel in that West semi. Being without John Darmody, Dylan Fitzell and Adrian Cummins was no help to the King Cormacs and they found themselves five-down at the break. It would have been worst but for a fortuitous goal about twenty-five minutes in: Mickey Coleman floated in a side line ‘cut’ from about forty metres out and it dipped roguishly into that triangle formed by the meeting of crossbar and post.  Darragh Mooney need not feel bad – such dippers have caught out many a seasoned goalie.

Ronan O’Brien was Eire Og’s chief scorer in that opening half but Cashel kept them within their sights for the third quarter. Yet one sensed Eire Og had much more on board and eventually they split open the Cashel defence for Seanie Ryan to plant a crucial goal. A volley of points in the final quarter took the winning gap out to eleven with Eoin Laffan being denied a consolation goal by Mooney at the very end.

Cashel scored a mere two points from open play and therein lies the summary of their difficulties. They had strong contributions from Lee Burke and Simon Delaney but their pool of players is too shallow at the moment. I suspect retaining their senior stripes was the major task this year and in that they were successful.

Eire Og did enough but will have to do a lot more to compete with Clonoulty in the final. Richard Ryan was very strong at full back and Padraig O’Dwyer was eye-catching in attack. They’ll get more from the O’Brien and Fox clans on other days and in younger players like Darragh Mooney, Donal O’Dwyer, Seanie Ryan and Tom Fox they have the seeds of a promising future. They already matched Clonoulty in an earlier round and will feel well capable of giving this one a lash whenever it happens, presumably the week after the All Ireland semi.

It was sad to hear of the passing of Con Houlihan at the weekend. For a generation of us in the seventies he was the doyen of sports writers, eagerly awaited every Monday evening for that ‘Evening Press’ column with its distinctive style and insights that set him apart as simply unique.

An RTE documentary on him some time ago was titled ‘Waiting for Houlihan’, echoing the title of Beckett’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’. Con was a Beckett fan and a Hardy fan and a Hopkins fan and a Proust fan and indeed a fan of everything literary and intellectual and creative. Like his Kerry neighbour, Brendan Kennelly, we too waited for Houlihan every week eager to devour his reflective insights on the weeks’ sporting highlights always delivered in that special style of his.

Con patented a style of sports writing that many have copied but none have matched. I think he took to heart the dictum – was it George Orwell’s? – that you never use two words where one will do or never use a large word where a small one will suffice. Con’s writing was brilliantly simple and therein I think was a large part of its appeal. He could capture a moment with a few superbly chosen words or a marvellously novel image. It was ‘colour’ writing before the brand even existed.

Many people still recall his comment on that famous Mikey Sheehy goal chipped over the head of Paddy Cullen – was in 1978? The Dublin goalie was compared to a housewife scampering back after she’d just smelled a cake burning in the oven.

He obviously loved words and their power and suggestiveness and had a particular fondness for playing with clichés, re-writing them and re-invigorating them. One of my favourite examples was when his fellow county man, Moss Keane, passed away and Con described him as a man of no airs and many graces.

Con’s passion for sport was boundless. He could captivate his readers when writing about hurling or football or rugby or soccer or cricket or horse racing or greyhounds or simply fishing. And there was absolutely no tribalism is his views. He has been described as an Anglophile and he clearly loved elements of British life; London, I think, was his favourite city. He despised violence and prejudice of any hue and was certainly no fan of the pompous and pretentious. In his full health he mostly stood on the terrace at games rather than sitting in any VIP section of a stand.

People often overlooked just how insightful Con was when writing about sport. I recall in the eighties he was suggesting that goalies in hurling needed to adapt their puck-outs. The philosophy at the time was simply to belt the ‘sliotar’ as far as possible whereas Con suggested it would be better to place a shorter puck-out to where a colleague was likely to win possession. It was a few decades later when Cork introduced the short puck-out and now it’s commonplace. Con was clearly ahead of his time.

In appearance Con had that rugged – even ragged – and unkempt appearance about him and he was clearly not the best conversationalist; a combination of the Kerry accent and an overpowering shyness made him at times almost incomprehensible – with the hand held over the mouth just in case you could lip read! But when he put pen to paper the true eloquence of the man emerged. He might have looked like the ‘bogger’ from Castleisland but behind that image was a most civilised and above all cultured man – a true renaissance man.

As well as his sports’ column Con also did a series of what he called ‘Tributaries’. These were mostly about famous writers; I recall a particularly interesting one on Thomas Hardy.  He was well studied in the classics too so Homer and Virgil and company could feature in his writing as well. Then he did a series of advice articles for Leaving Cert students on the basics of grammar, how to approach essays and so forth. He was a teacher before entering journalism and worked as a Leaving Cert examiner, other aspects of his life story that resonate with this scribbler.

I love his comment on the apostrophe where he said that a man who misplaces an apostrophe is not to be trusted with bigger things. Con was meticulous about his syntax and grammar though he did champion one grammatical aberration by promoting sentences which begin with the word ‘and’. All in all a fascinating character.

Con was my first love in sports journalism. I never met him but I still mourn his passing as I would a close friend.

And finally: Con would regularly end his column with what he called a ‘fogra’. So this week in honour of Con I replace a P.S. with the following ‘fogra’: O’Riain Cup semis and relegation semis feature prominently in next week’s fixtures: Boherlahan and Davins and Moycarkey and Golden clash in the former with Kickhams v. Aherlow and Upperchurch v. Holycross in the latter. The smaller games mattered as much to Con as the Croke Park fillers.

Fogra eile: Congrats to Brendan Cummins on his sixth long ‘poc’ title; he remains the king of Cooley.

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