I've told the story before of one of my first games for Kerry, a McGrath Cup match against Tipperary. I'd say I was 19, not long out of school and I was mad to get telling people I was being picked for Kerry. I went straight to Páidí and gave him the big news.
“Tipperary?” says he, seeing me coming a mile off. “Sure we used beat those fellas over the phone.”
There was an extra bit to the story though. It came a couple of years later in 1996 when we went to Clonmel for Páidí’s first championship game as Kerry manager. It was a brutal day – lashings of rain, bad pitch, the whole show. We were losing at half-time and we only got out the gap because Dara Ó Cinnéide pinged a drop-kick goal from 20 yards.
We ran up the score in the closing minutes but for a long time we were in trouble. We knew it too. You’d be looking around you and up at the scoreboard and going, “Christ, this can’t be happening”. We knew at full-time that we had just about got away with it.
We were in the car on the way home that night and I couldn’t resist pulling Páidí’s leg about it. I was probably overstepping the mark a bit but I was trying to lighten the mood with him. “Used beat them over the phone, did you?” I said. It took a while for him to see the funny side.
The thing with Tipperary, even then, was that of the weaker counties in Munster, they were the one side that always came at you playing with a bit of confidence. Even if you beat them by 15 points the previous year, they’d still turn up against Kerry as if they expected to do something. We always put it down to the fact that they were coming from a county that had a pedigree of winning All-Irelands in hurling.
They always had a bit of underage success lurking within them too. Some of the guys I played against had been to an All-Ireland minor final in 1984 – the likes of Brian Burke and these fellas. They carried Tipp football for a decade before handing it onto the next crowd to do their stint. Declan Browne, Peter Lambert and Brain Lacey were playing that day in Clonmel. Brendan Cummins was kicking the frees. Damn right they were confident.
Tipperary football’s biggest problem was never Kerry football or Cork football. It was always Tipperary hurling. Their enemy was always within. But I always admired the fact that no matter what roadworks they had to drive around inside their own county, they always landed with notions. They played with a bit of style and weren’t afraid to throw their weight around either.
Twenty years on, the faces might change but they still have that attitude. You watch guys like Peter Acheson and Michael Quinlivan getting interviewed. These lads aren't in the least bit nervous of the stage they're on.
You could see that they were way more comfortable in Croke Park the last day than Galway. And sure why wouldn’t they be? A rake of them won a minor All-Ireland there in front of a full house with a Dublin crowd against them. What have Galway done in Croke Park recently? Nothing that Tipp needed to be afraid of.
Still, I didn't think they'd win. I fancied Galway. I underestimated what Tipperary were capable of. Galway had beaten two Division One teams in Mayo and Roscommon and I thought that would stand to them. Not the first time I was wrong.
But this is the sort of thing Tipperary have always had to put up with. They’ve always had to fight harder for a bit of respect. I think people from outside the county find it easier to dump on them because we see the sort of rough treatment they get from their own. The Tipp footballers remind me of Aidan Quinn’s character in Legends Of The Fall. It doesn’t matter what they do, the hurlers are Brad Pitt and that’s the end of it. “I followed all of the rules,” he says at one point. “Man’s and God’s. And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more.”
It’s probably no great surprise that they’ve used that to their advantage. Eventually you carry forward the momentum of fighting your own corner on the home front and use it out in the big bad world. When you’ve spent a lifetime of seeing half of every decent minor team go off and play hurling, you get used to not expecting the world to be fair. Maybe it’s only surprising that it took this long.
In an odd sort of way, I think the 13 lads leaving over the winter has actually helped them. I know everybody had different reasons for going but the one thing we can say for sure is that not one of those guys walking away thought there was an All-Ireland semi-final in this team.
So the players left behind could go one of two ways – they could wallow in pity for themselves or they could decide to buck the trend. Nothing focuses the mind like a cause.
At least when everybody leaves, you know who you have left. You know that everyone who is there wants to be there. You know that nobody is hedging their bets. So you work with what you have and you set your goals with that in mind.
Tipperary knew all year that people would underestimate them. They knew that no matter what, they were better than what people thought they were. That’s a great club to have in your bag because by the time other teams work out that you’re actually a serious threat, it’s usually too late. Teams will only take so much kicking. In Kerry, our hurlers had success this year after a long time in the doldrums. Like the Tipperary footballers, they’re a little republic of their own. They’re a small pocket of the county and they don’t get the respect they deserve. But you can’t go on like that forever.
Eventually, it's time to fight back. The Kerry hurlers weren't taking it any more, the Tipp footballers are the same. In Liam Kearns, they have the right man to get a siege mentality going. Liam had Limerick teams that played like they were holding a grudge. Liam would be spiky and he'd be cranky and he'd make them fight their corner. They looked at the Corks and the Kerrys and said 'Bring It On'.
So Liam would want Tipperary thinking big, not taking no for an answer. He doesn’t lack confidence, never did. In that way, they’re a good match. He would have wanted to tap into that innate confidence that the younger Tipp players have. Thirteen guys gone? So what? Let’s go out and play. People are going to be surprised by how good we are so let’s surprise them. Let’s shock the life out of them.
Their challenge now is is to keep shocking people. Nobody gives them a chance on Sunday but they’ll expect no different. They won’t care about that one bit. They’ll play their game, going eyeballs out. They’ll try to put up a big score, like they’ve been doing throughout the qualifiers. They’ll go for goals and challenge Mayo to try to contain them.
The one good thing for them is that they’re not coming up against Kerry. Clare couldn’t raise a gallop in the quarter-final because they were beaten when they got off the bus. The same would have happened to Tipperary. At least in Mayo, they’ll be coming up against a team that they have no big history of defeats against.
For all that, I still expect Mayo to take care of them. I’ve heard people say that Mayo will make it an open game of football and give Tipperary a chance that way but I don’t think that’s how it will play out. I can’t see Mayo going bald-headed for this. They don’t need to win a shoot-out so why would they try?
This is Mayo’s sixth All-Ireland semi-final in a row. They know what the demands of these games are. Get in, get out, get back on the bus. The last two semi-finals they were in turned out to be epics against Dublin and Kerry –and the result both times was they watched those All-Ireland finals on TV.
That’s not what Mayo want on Sunday. They want to take care of business like the hardened animal they are. This isn’t their first rodeo, they’ve seen everything Croke Park can throw at them – good and bad. There was no point putting Tyrone away like that if they don’t follow it up on Sunday.
An All-Ireland semi-final is a massive achievement for Tipperary and they should be able to build on it in years to come. But in 2016, Mayo don’t have time for other people’s fairytales.