The worst? Ah, there was no worst. Far too many candidates on the ballot to elect any of them, the vote hopelessly split, a quota miles off in the distance. If you said there was a worst, the corollary would be a least worst and we’d be here a long time trying to put a name on it. This is Tipperary football – you huddle up for winter or you get out and follow the hurling sun.
War stories. In the spring of 2007, Tipp had a poor enough start to the league. They drew with Sligo on opening day but followed it up with defeats to Wexford, Cavan and Meath. Against Meath they’d actually been ahead at half-time but the game was in Navan and the opposition full-forward line was Stephen Bray, Graham Geraghty and Cian Ward. It was no massive shock when they got done by a Geraghty goal late on. No disgrace, certainly.
Imagine how they felt then when they flipped on Tipp FM on the Monday night to hear a phone-in with the charming title: ‘Are Tipperary footballers the worst football team in Ireland?’ The basis for it was their position at the foot of Division 2B, a half-assed excuse at best. The league wasn’t graduated like today – Carlow, Leitrim and London were in Division 2A at the time and Tipp would have put all three of them away comfortably enough.
But even if they were bottom of the bottom of the bottom, would that have made it alright? Within the panel, they couldn’t fathom the blithe cruelty of it. Who thought it was a reasonable idea for a local station to be running that sort of phone-in?
What was the thinking other than to hold a team most of the county never troubled with a second thought up to ridicule? So they withdrew co-operation and let Tipp FM stew for a bit before they talked to them again.
That’s nearly a decade ago. Something more recent? No problem. The winter just gone took a toll on the pitch in Semple Stadium. Plenty of rain, very little let-up. Come time for the league, the Tipp county board looked to spare it here and there. The hurlers got to play all their home games at home, though. Never a suggestion that they wouldn’t
The footballers, not so much. They generally had to head away off to Clonmel and Tipp town. In mid-February, The Irish Times put in a call to see would the planned double-header at the start of March go ahead . We were assured it was in no danger. On the day, the hurlers stayed in Semple, the footballers were hunted out to Seán Treacy Park.
For a final indignity, the lunchtime throw-in wasn’t changed. Nothing says second-class citizen like having to eat your pre-match meal at breakfast time for a game was that fixed early to suit another sport in another town. It’s Tipp football though. Them’s the breaks.
“You have to be of strong faith,” laughs
. Run your finger back through the past 50 years or so of Tipp football and some of the same names keep cropping up. Seamus McCarthy, Hugh Kennedy, Joe Hannigan, Mick Foley. Latterly – and most importantly when it comes to the current group – David Power.
Moroney has been in and out and in and around it since the mid-1960s. He’s been a player, a coach, a trainer, a selector. He’s run development squads, organised fundraisers, crossed his fingers and closed his eyes sometimes. Seen it all. Didn’t think he’d see this.
“God, we got some drubblings,” he says. “We lost to Cork in Fermoy in 1982 by a cricket score and we after rattling Kerry a couple of times in the years just before it. I walked away that day full sure that nothing would ever improve.
“I was so caught up in it that I went away and drew up a proposal that I brought to the county board looking for them to try and get an All-Ireland B competition through congress. But the county board defeated it. And I’m glad they did. ‘Twas lucky. It taught me a lesson – you should always aim for the highest and don’t be looking for the second door. Within two years, our minors were in an All-Ireland final.”
Every once in a while, they’d find a clatter of young lads come through at the same time and make a football team out of them. But it was always by happenstance as much as anything. And to keep the makings of a good team together, you need two things – a realistic prospect of success and no big distractions. So Tipp football was doubly cursed – if Cork and Kerry didn’t get them, Tipp hurling would.
Mick O’Loughlin is another lifer. Like Moroney, he’s done his stints on various sidelines – rare is the Tipp football man who has got away with doing it just the once. He kept at it and kept going back. If you pushed him on the reason why, the answer would have more religion in it than science.
“I was involved in the late 90s and early 2000s with Johnny Cummins, Brendan’s dad, at under-21 level,” O’Loughlin says. “And back then it was a real struggle. You didn’t have success at underage anywhere along the way so it was always a battle.
“You were always competing with Limerick, Clare and Waterford but you always knew that Cork and Kerry just weren’t within reach. The odd time you might catch one of them on an off day but even then, you still wouldn’t be thinking of a win. You were never really going to be able to go into those games saying, ‘Listen, we’re going to win here.’ There was no belief.
“But we would have always thought that the talent was there, it was a matter of harnessing it. And maybe getting away from the dual issue. There was no point going on about losing lads to hurling. These lads in this team, none of them are a threat to senior hurling. That’s a great thing. They can fight their own battles and worry about Tipp football.”
Easier said than done, of course. For the most part, the Tipperary county board has done football reasonable service in the circumstances. They’ve shown it more love than most hurling counties and have certainly given it more of a show than the vast majority of football counties have given hurling. But the tension is there, always. An All-Ireland semi-final is a stone cold miracle in this day and age.
“The county board might have wished us to go away at times but they’ve given us support too,” says Moroney. “But there are shortcomings, no doubt about it. There are challenges in trying to promote football in Tipperary. The biggest challenge is to get clubs even just playing it. You have a lot of clubs where they just wouldn’t have any interest in it.
“That’s why this semi-final is a huge help. It will make it cool to play football. I’ve often heard fellas say, ‘Why would you bother with football? Sure you’re not going to achieve anything with that.’ I know this was the attitude and when young fellas heard it, they would wonder is it worth the commitment. Now at least people can see that there’s a chance and that young lads are ploughing the furrow for those coming after them.”
The development squads started off by Power and Moroney around 2007 have been consistent in their delivery to the senior set-up. The team that faces Mayo tomorrow is effectively made up of three waves – the under-21 teams of the late 2000s that made three Munster finals in a row, the All-Ireland minor winning team of 2011 and last year’s under-21 All-Ireland runners-up. The 13 players who left over the winter fast-tracked some of the younger players into the team and none of them have looked out of their depth.
For the tiny band of coalface workers, tomorrow was never in their dreams. Beating Cork, maybe. Getting comfortable in the qualifiers, definitely. Perhaps even poxing through to an All-Ireland quarter-final someday. But this? Seventy minutes away from a final? Stop.
It’s just all so ahead of time. Back around a decade ago, they talked about making a drive at getting to an All-Ireland final by 2020. It was a nice round number and it just so happened to be 100 years on from their last appearance. So we can’t say definitively that nobody imagined this. They didn’t imagine it in 2016, all the same.
“Back in 2010, they were stuck for someone to present medals to a West Tipperary under-14 team,” says Moroney. “They had nobody else so they asked me. So I said fine but what will I talk to them about? I wanted something that might be relevant to them. I went off and photocopied the last Tipperary team that won an All-Ireland in 1920. I printed off copies for each of them, pictures with their names on them.
“And I said to them, ‘Lads, in 10 years, it will be 100 years since Tipp won an All-Ireland football title. Ye’ll be 24 or 25 years of age when the centenary comes around. We want to be there and see if we can win another one. And lads, ye are the ones that we are depending to get us to Croke Park and do that job for us.
“In fairness to them, two or three of them are on the current panel and will be there on Sunday. They’re only young lads yet, panel lads. But they’ve taken it on. You have to leave them with a message. You have to give them a goal. If you don’t aim high, you won’t achieve.”
In Tipperary football, the sky always seems that little bit higher. Tomorrow they get within touching distance. Imagine.