Westside Column 22 March 2019

WESTSIDE

 

A one-point defeat to Dublin – the first loss on home soil since 1946 – brings the curtain down on what has been a dismal league campaign for Tipperary – our worst since 2012.

The raw stats from the spring series lay bare the reality. We played six games in the competition and lost four of them, three by a single point. It’s a woeful record for a team still rated as a top-four contender for the championship.

Saturday’s defeat had pundits trawling the records. When had Tipperary last lost a home fixture to Dublin?  The answer: February 10 1946, a date beyond the recall of all bar the most senior of our citizens.

Seventy-three years ago the world was entering the post-war era. The UN was about to replace the old League of Nations. The Nuremberg trials were dishing out justice to the Nazis. Churchill was delivering his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. And all the while Dublin’s hurlers had the temerity to travel to Thurles and riddle the Tipperary defence for nine goals.

Seamus King in his county history described it thus: “Tipperary seemed over-confident and under-trained and the zippy Dublin forwards waltzed through their defence”.  The end score read 9-6 to 2-2, a humiliating defeat for the reigning All Ireland champions, one that knocked them out of that particular league race.

By contrast there was no goal fest for the Dubs on Saturday last instead they took a more patient route to chisel out a famous win. They were stronger in the tackle, dominant in the air, outworking their opponents generally and being vastly more efficient on their scoring chances.

The first half set the pattern. With wind assistance the visitors began with a pair of Oisin O’Rorke frees; they were never subsequently led in the game. The only goal of the match was a messy one for Tipperary to concede, the cover found wanting once O’Rorke got past Barrett in the corner. The margin was four at the break, a modest lead in the circumstances.

Immediately on resuming Tipperary got level with points from Jason Forde (two frees), Jake Morris and Noel McGrath. This seemed to be more fitting from Tipperary with more urgency in their play.

Hawkeye controversy halted our momentum. The Dublin players vigorously protested a wide decision by the umpires at the Killinan end but the referee allowed the puck-out from which Michael Breen hit a point into the town posts. Belatedly the ref then called back the play for Hawkeye deliberation. Dublin’s point was granted and Breen’s cancelled. It was a turn-over of two points, so crucial by the end. The slowness of the officials to act did them no credit but it’s important that justice was done.

Three times during the second half Tipperary rallied to level the match but at no point could they drive on to claim the game. Dublin displayed admirable resolve, winning individual battles and scoring with great economy. It was a concentrated, composed performance by the metropolitans.

By contrast Tipperary huffed and puffed with the odd bit of class but nothing consistent enough to turn the contest. Dublin was winning the aerial battle and when the ball went to ground they were the more dogged, driven side – too dogged in the case of Danny Sutcliffe who collected a second yellow late in the contest.

Mark Kehoe’s introduction for the final quarter brought an instant reward with a pair of points that we hoped would spark a late Tipperary surge to victory. It didn’t. Dublin was the steadier, more dependable side who fully deserved their win.

In the end it all came down to another tight finish, the type we tend to lose. By the twenty-seventh minute Jason Forde had leveled matters once again. As per pattern Dublin struck once more with points from Moran (free), Eamon Dillon and Paul Ryan. Back came Callanan and Noel McGrath with reducing points. There was one in it with five to play. A Sean Moran ‘65’ pushed it out to two before a Noel McGrath free halved the lead. For those present it was end to end, score for score excitement. A Paul Ryan point made it two once more before Brendan Maher drove a long free between the sticks.

In a final throw of the dice Tipp had a line ball about fifty meters out on the New Stand side. At that moment I thought of the 2014 league final. Tipp and Kilkenny played a draw and it was still deadlocked with extra time almost up when the ‘cats’ got a line ball in a similar spot after Darren Gleeson had over-hit a clearance. T.J. Reid played a short one-two with Richie Hogan before splitting the posts for the winner. Could Tipp work a similar trick now?

We couldn’t. Ronan Maher had options to play one quickly to colleagues but instead lofted the ‘cut’ aimlessly towards a crowded goal area and the chance was gone. Dublin celebrated.

There were few credits on the Tipperary side after another dreary outcome. Cathal Barrett deserves mention. Back to his best role at corner back he brought lots of ball out of defence and could hardly be faulted for the failure. James Barry too stood out with two vital second half interceptions preventing likely Dublin goals.

Further afield Noel McGrath had another productive day at midfield and there were individual items to admire such as Jake Morris’s three points and Mark Kehoe’s pair but very few others will retain fond memories of their influence on proceedings. Brendan Maher’s return was rightly applauded.

It’s a desperately disappointing exit from the league but, in truth, we got what we deserved. This was yet another poor performance from Tipperary, the eighteen wides epitomizing our ineptitude on the day; Dublin hit six.

And it happened on a day when the referee was throwing confetti our way. The first half free count was twelve-three in Tipperary’s favour. By the end I had noted twenty frees for Tipperary versus eight for Dublin. I might have got one or two wrong but the overall imbalance is inescapable. And yet, even with that advantage, we couldn’t win.

In this league series alone three of our four defeats were one-pointers. We can’t buy a win in a tight finish and surely that must be an area the management tackles in the weeks ahead. Limerick last year did major work on the psychological aspect of the game visualizing scenarios where they go six/seven points behind and how they react. How to cope with a tight finish was part of the agenda too and remember their game against Kilkenny where they were reeled in near the end and yet had the composure for Tom Morrissey to go downfield for that precious point. Most games are won in the final moments and yet that’s when we’re at our weakest.

One-point wins by Tipperary are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth and that has to indicate a psychological deficit in our make up. We haven’t the mental strength, the fortitude, the nerve to play out a tight finish. If we’re leading by ten we’ll embellish it to fifteen but if the margin is tight we invariably blink. The last significant one-point win by Tipperary was the 2016 All Ireland semi and on that occasion we nervously stumbled over the line.

There’s a narrative going around since Saturday that we’re better off out of the league. Some almost welcomed the defeat. It’s a strange view and shows the damage previous defeats have done to our collective psyche. Just because we lost the last two league deciders, and did poorly in the subsequent championships, people are anxious now to slink away from the challenge that Limerick might offer next weekend. It’s a defeatist attitude. Losing last time should make you more determined than ever to correct the record this time. There’s no glory in avoidance.

The comfort zone here seems to be that we slip into the background for the next eight weeks and then, abracadabra, the magic wand is waved, and everything is honky dory for Cork on May 12. If only life, and sport, was so simple.

Saturday’s defeat has to be set in the wider context of Tipperary’s whereabouts in recent seasons. In the past fifteen months alone in league and championship we’ve played 18 games and only won 7 with 9 defeats and 2 draws. Since the great All Ireland win of 2016 we’ve played 30 league and championship games, winning just 14 with 13 defeats and 3 draws. It’s a poor record and the evidence of this spring has shown no sign of improvement.

Publicly Liam Sheedy sounds unruffled by Saturday’s defeat but privately I suspect he’s bothered by events. This is hardly how he saw the spring evolving. At one end of the spectrum he must be wondering whether the older element of the team has the capacity to go to the well once again for yet another championship assault. Then at the other end there’s the younger, unproven element. It’s quite a diverse mix and blending the different strands of his panel will test his undoubted managerial ability. Saturday last won’t have helped.

 

 

 

 

Comments are closed.