Tipperary footballers reaching an All-Ireland semi-final is no overnight success. There are plenty of medals in their pockets. Some for hurling but mostly for football.
Underage success has been steady since 2011, though those All-Ireland-winning minors (beating a brilliant Dublin side that included Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey) have not come through in large numbers. Only Michael Quinlivan, Bill Maher (recently dropped from the hurling team) and goalkeeper Evan Comerford started Sunday's historic game against Galway.
Three players graduating from a minor side would be a decent return for a football county. But it should be five or six. Others have been lost to professional sport and hurling.
Tipp retained their Munster title at minor in 2012, captained by Maher, and broke Cork's stranglehold on the under-21 grade in 2015, only to lose an ill-tempered All-Ireland final to Tyrone at Parnell Park.
Tyrone also halted their progress, emphatically, during last year's qualifier in Thurles. A 12-point defeat saw Peter Creedon step aside, opening the way for Liam Kearns to take over.
Tyrone may well be their opponents once again on August 21st. Kevin O’Halloran was the Tipp free-taker in both those meetings last season. As he was last Sunday in Croke Park. “Tyrone still have to win their quarter-final, but if it is Tyrone we will just go out and play,” said O’Halloran. “It would throw up a great contest.”
Memory bank But that under-21 All-Ireland final defeat hurt. It was not an overly dirty game but so incensed were Tipperary officials with the behaviour of some players that they blocked Tyrone manager Fergal Logan from entering the changing room to commiserate afterwards.
“Suppose it’s not nice to lose,” said O’Halloran. “It’s in the memory bank. We’ll hold onto it and use it further down the line.”
There are shades of the Dublin hurlers reaching the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final to this Tipperary football journey. The second sport in a hurling county, it is suggested that this success edges them closer to being considered a dual county.
“We are nowhere near the hurlers yet,” O’Halloran admitted. “But that’s what we are trying to break, we are trying to push on and be an equal county. That’s all we are looking to do. Just be the same. Get the same respect.”
Realistically does he think that can ever happen? “Hopefully. Hopefully the supporters will come out and support us. That’s all we want. Support us. There are a lot of hurling supporters in the county and there is a lot of them changing into dual supporters.”
That will take longer than it has to gather up their current medal haul. Peter Acheson knows this better than most. The Tipperary captain has experienced success in both codes at under-21, as well as representing Ireland at underage soccer.
In November Acheson took over the captaincy of a panel that had just lost Seámus Kennedy and Steven O'Brien to the hurling panel, while Colin O'Riordan, clearly their best player, signed an Australian Rules contract with the Sydney Swans. Others retired. Others walked away in their prime to work abroad. "I'd say the odds on us [reaching an All-Ireland semi-final] were 2,000-1 after all those lads dropped off the team," said Acheson. "We were left with a very, very young squad. I'm the third-oldest player and I'm only 26 but the young fellas, they are brave out. They go for it, which suits our style of play. There are lads there, like Jimmy Feehan, who are only 19, 20 . . . But they are driving it."
Blessing in disguise
“We are fitter, faster and we believe in ourselves more than ever. So I think maybe it was a blessing in disguise.”
It still does not adequately explain what changed.
“We always had nine or 10 lads who believed, but you need the 30 to believe or you never win anything. Before games now when we are having a team talk I look around and I know all the lads believe we can win that game. I don’t think that will change for the semi-final.”