Westside Column 15 February 2019

WESTSIDE

 

A testing league series resumes for Tipperary on Sunday next with a trip to Innovate Wexford Park. It’s a novel venue for the players – and not very familiar to the Tipperary fans either.

2004 was the last time Tipperary played Wexford in the league at Wexford Park. Back then Ken Hogan was the man in charge, assisted by Jack Bergin and Colm Bonner.  That March day things ran very smoothly for Tipperary. By half time the visitors were well in command, leading 3-12 to 1-4. Eventually they won by 4-18 to 1-13. John Carroll hit 2-2 and Lar Corbett pitched in with 2-1.

The one safe prediction to make is that there will be no reprise of that margin on Sunday. Davy Fitzgerald has brought Wexford to a different level and, particularly at home, nobody will get an easy passage against them.

Historically our league record against Wexford isn’t great either. We’ve met on 42 previous occasions with Wexford on 20 wins, Tipperary on 19 and 3 draws completing the stats. The seventies and eighties were particularly bleak periods for Tipperary in this rivalry. From 1972 to 1988, for example, we lost 10, won 1 and drew 1 of 12 encounters with the Yellowbellies. Those were big physical Wexford sides that we seemed unable to cope with.

Modern Wexford has plenty of physique too but under Davy they’ve developed a different hurling method. It will be no surprise if they operate a sweeper on Sunday and whereas traditional Wexford tended to belt the ball aimlessly downfield the modern version has more emphasis on running and combination.

It’s been a mixed league so far for Tipperary – strong against Clare in the opener, weaker at the Gaelic Grounds on the second outing. As ever team selection will be instructive. Dan McCormack is definitely out for some weeks with that shoulder injury. The word appears to be more positive on Barry Heffernan who may be available. Incidentally I’ve heard no mention yet of a Limerick player being cited for that incident.

At the defensive end Killian O’Dwyer replaced Donagh Maher at corner back during the Limerick game and it will be interesting to see if he holds that position for the trip to Wexford. I’m not sure if Cathal Barrett is still unfit to resume. If Barry Heffernan is unavailable then Tom Fox was listed on the team sheet the last day and may be in line for a run. James Barry seems to be re-establishing himself as our default full back.

Robert Byrne and Michael Breen started well the last day at midfield and could well get the nod again for Sunday. Dan McCormack may be out of contention in attack but there are plenty of options. Jason Forde and John McGrath both came on the last day as well as Mark Kehoe who is making waves with UCCLE in the Fitzgibbon Cup. ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer is another who might get game time as well as Niall O’Meara. It will be interesting to see if Seamie Callanan remains the free taker after the Limerick experience.

We hear much (too much?) these days about injury woes. On Sunday Tipperary’s footballers had a very noteworthy win over Donegal but there was a little sub-plot around which side had the longer injury list. During the week then Liam Sheedy highlighted that he was without fourteen of his forty-man panel due to injuries.

I think this can be over-played by managers. It’s the time of year when teams are engaged in heavy training, bodies are tired, sore and prone to injury so you can get a run of problems. It happens most teams so you just get on with what you have.  Besides some of the absent players can be peripheral guys whose loss doesn’t noticeably weaken the first fifteen.

Anyway our last meeting with Wexford in the league was the corresponding fixture twelve months ago at Semple Stadium. Coincidentally it was also on February 17. A year ago we were seven up at half time and won by six in the end. Jason Forde scored 2-9 with ‘Bonner’ Maher on 1-2 as part of a 3-21 to 1-21 victory.

The previous year the sides clashed in a league semi-final at Nowlan Park. That was the day that Jason Forde and Davy Fitzgerald got up close and personal. Goals that day were decisive for Tipperary who won by 5-18 to 1-19 before the big collapse against Galway in the final.

Prior to 2017 there was a twelve year gap where we didn’t meet Wexford in the league. They came to Thurles in 2005 and won by 2-19 to 2-15, which was their last victory over Tipperary.

It’s interesting to recall the 2004 game in Wexford Park. How many of the starting fifteen could you name? Without checking I’d have struggled particularly with the defence. Cummins was still keeping guard and was fronted by Thomas Costello, John Devane and Michael Phelan, the latter from Ballybacon/Grange might not immediately spring to mind. He won a Munster U21 medal the previous year. The half line was more familiar: Eamon Corcoran, David Kennedy and Diarmuid Fitzgerald.

Eddie Enright and Paul Kelly lined up at midfield that day. Then in attack you had Lar Corbett, John Carroll and Benny Dunne on the half line with Seamus Butler, ‘Redser’ O’Grady and Eoin Kelly inside. Tommy Dunne, Declan Fanning and Noel Maloney were used substitutes. John Conran, an outstanding hurler in his time, managed Wexford that year.

So much for the past. It will matter little when the teams line up on Sunday. The bookies have Tipperary listed as strong favourites on odds of 1/2 with Wexford at 15/8. Indeed. Both teams lost to Limerick in earlier rounds though in contrasting fashion: a late Wexford rally fell narrowly short when they hosted Limerick whereas Tipperary faded out in the final quarter at the Gaelic Grounds.

It should be a tight affair. Home advantage is an obvious plus for Wexford and I think we’ll do very well to get anything out of the fixture. Ultimately I suppose it will come down to mood on the day.

Elsewhere the annual report by association director general, Tom Ryan, has created many discussion points and left no shortage of material for columnists countrywide. Falling match attendances, especially for football, and the attendant drop in revenue has sparked much debate. His comments on the Liam Miller testimonial generated headlines also.

The association was bullied, according to the DG, on the Liam Miller game at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. The Carlow man feels that the pressure put on the association to set aside its rules was unfair and his comments may have a bearing now on how the upcoming Congress deals with a motion on this issue. In the past a motion by Clare to allow Central Council decide on the use of county venues was heavily defeated and it will be interesting to see how the Liam Miller saga impacts on Congress discussion this time.

I think the GAA decision to allow the testimonial in Pairc Ui Chaoimh was the correct, and neighbourly, thing to do. However, some aspects of the case were disquieting and Tom Ryan has rightly highlighted them. Nobody likes to be browbeaten into action and yet that’s exactly what happened in this case.

Some of the soccer voices we heard during this saga were deplorable. I’m thinking particularly of Damian Duff and Stephen Kenny. If their views are reflective of the soccer fraternity generally (surely not) then I’d be inclined to tell them where to go the next time they want a helping hand.

Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, didn’t deck himself in glory either during the controversy when he jumped on the bandwagon and tried to link government grant aid to the opening of Pairc Ui Chaoimh for the testimonial. Tom Ryan is right to knock that nonsense on the head.

Falling attendances, especially at football games, has to be a major worry for the organization. A 23% decrease in gate receipts for football is a massive drop off. This decline happened despite the extra games created by the Super 8 structure and is a timely reminder that public patronage cannot be taken for granted. Unlike the past people nowadays are selective and will only attend where they expect high-quality entertainment. Clearly football in its modern guise is not delivering on that score.

Nothing will kill the games more than public apathy. Remember the old Railway Cup competitions? They died a slow painful death because they lost public appeal. Without public support the games are nothing and the association needs to always remember that.

Yet the recent attempts to tackle the issues affecting football, such as limiting the hand pass, were voted down by Central Council without even allowing a proper trial period during the league. For some there’s nothing wrong with football. A few more years of decline like we saw in 2018 might eventually change their minds.

 

 

 

 

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