Heady days for Tipperary as footballers edge towards the summit
Premier County could be competing in the top flight in both football and hurling next season
Tipperary Michael Quinlivan in action against Louth’s Patrick Reilly during last year’s Division Three final. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Tipperary’s eye-opening league win over Meath a fortnight ago immediately raised the possibility of the Premier County having Division One hurling and football teams next season. Heady times.
Afterwards, manager Liam Kearns was, understandably, uneasy about that kind of speculation and emphasised that retaining Division Two status is his key priority. But the style and margin of their win over a lauded football county seemed like another significant moment in the evolution of Tipp’ football.
Hurling may always be the prevailing obsession – the summer religion – within the borders but the football teams keep on doing it. The minor team of 2011 broke through a kind of glass ceiling by winning that year’s All-Ireland final against a feted Dublin side and in doing so seemed to stretch the limits of what could be achieved.
A Munster club championship for Clonmel Commercials in 2015; a senior All-Ireland semi-final appearance in 2016; a second ever All-Star award winner in Michael Quinlivan (along with Declan Browne in 1998 and 2003) and now breathing hard on the promotion contenders – Tipp football is making strides.
“The best thing about this conversation is that 10 years ago, people would have laughed at the idea of Tipperary as a Division One football team,” says Charlie McKeever, manager of Commercials for that historic provincial breakthrough (it was the county’s first ever championship at that grade) and also the manager of the Tipp minor football team that reached the All-Ireland final in 2015.
“That’s no longer the case. The seniors are going really well. They have been playing some exceptional football. It is a very difficult division and I know Liam [Kearns] is cautious about going up to Division One.
“But strong counties are going to come down from Division One and Armagh will come up so I think Division Two will be even more competitive next year. So there is a question about whether you want to stay there. But Tipperary are lucky to have such a good manager and he is getting the best out of what he has. Now, to keep the county at that level there has to be a steady stream coming from the other direction.”
Although the Donegal accent remains undiluted, McKeever has been living in Tipperary for the past 16 years. He admits that it took him some time to adjust to the challenges of preparing and fielding elite hurling and football teams and while he is delighted by the progress within the past decade, he feels it is crucial that the county continues to bring a new wave of footballers through to sustain the effort.
Traditionally, football has had its enclaves in Tipp, with the north of the county almost exclusively dedicated to hurling. Loughmore-Castleiney are one of the clubs that have thrived at both hurling and football, winning both senior championships in 2013 and reaching the finals again a year later. They lost the hurling and won the football.
“That was two years going from January and December and it was hard on the players,” says Pat Healy, who is the club’s representative on the county football committee.
“It has become a bigger challenge with the training that is done now. Twenty years ago we were well able to cope with it because the demand on county players didn’t seem to be as intense. But that has a big impact on the whole situation. We had a few years when we had no representative on the football team. Not that they weren’t being picked. It was their own choice.”
Loughmore is symbolic of both the difficulties and opportunities facing Tipperary if it is to establish itself as a consistent force in both football as well as hurling.
In many cases, the best footballers coming through are also the best hurlers. That can lead to difficult choices and tensions. While the 2011 minor group was exceptional, their path was made more straightforward by the fact that the minor hurlers were knocked out of the championship relatively early.
In 2015, both minor teams made it to All-Ireland finals. Charlie McKeever stresses that his team were up against an extremely talented Kerry team in that football final. But half the team had lost in the hurling final just a few weeks before to Galway – 4-13 to 1-16.
“The physical and mental drawbacks of losing that weren’t ideal. But the problem is that in any county, reaching two minor finals would be considered a very successful year. However, the hurlers may have felt they would have won that minor title if some of the players hadn’t been dual.
“There have been some decisions since about dual players and the issue that has created since then is that there hasn’t been a minor football team that has reached that level.”
There is another highly-promising group coming through, however. Martin Quinlivan coaches the U-15 football team. A year ago, they won the Munster competition with some ease and also won the Tony Forristal hurling tournament. Twenty-five of the teenagers are on both the hurling and football panels.
Traditionally, the mindset in Tipp has been that if a kid excels at both sports, hurling will ultimately win out. Martin Quinlivan believes that effectively ending that prejudice is crucial if Tipp are to excel in both games.
“It is understandable from the historical perspective. But it is going to be extremely difficult to go further up the chain because you are going to come up against counties where the majority of the resources are put into football teams. Resources in Tipperary are, at best, officially officially shared but on the ground you might find it different.
“Like, we have a Tipp supporters club that is exclusively dedicated to hurling so it is a misnomer, as such. In Tipperary, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of GAA men consider themselves hurling people and have no problem with football – as long as football knows its place.
“But for football to go with the potential that the current team has, it has to start challenging its place. With the talent available to Tipperary at the minute, it has to challenge that stereotype both for hearts and minds of the next generation and for the financial monies available. And that is where the conflict will start; football has to become better than a second class citizen.”
He feels that extending the dual-option for players at least through their minor years can be beneficial to both games at a later level. He instances Séamus Kennedy, the Clonmel player who won a senior All-Ireland with the Tipp hurlers in 2016.
“Séamus played football for Tipp in 2015. He had been on the hurling panel for a few years before that. By his own admission he was going nowhere. He played senior football, strengthened up and mentally toughened up and went straight back into the Tipp senior hurling team.”
Paudie Feehan from Killenaule is regarded as one of the up-and-coming hurlers who may have an impact on the senior side this year. But Feehan’s underage profile was entirely football dominated.
A broader approach might propel you more quickly to the higher levels
“Where does that leave the argument that you must give up everything but hurling at 14 in order to become a senior hurler?”
Martin’s son Michael played midfield on that trailblazing 2011 minor team and has become one of the very best players in the country. It is lost on nobody in Tipp that half of that defeated Dublin team have become household names on the Jim Gavin teams that are on a non-stop rampage.
Charlie McKeever reckons that around eight of the 2011 team had senior intercounty potential. “Not all of those have come through, for one reason or another.”
Bringing the best through remains a crucial test for Tipperary. McKeever notes that Jack Kennedy, probably the stand-out talent of the 2015 group, is now making an impression at senior grade. Others will follow. Pat Healy is hopeful there is an acceptance now that Tipperary as a strong football entity – as a top 10 team – is a realistic ambition.
“ Great work has been done within the county. Commercials winning the Munster club two years ago adds spice to it. Last year or the year before they were saying that the hurlers didn’t want the dual players. But I think that has begun to sort itself out and it is very hard to deprive a minor from playing both codes if he is good enough.”
David Power, the manager of the 2011 side, has been recruited to the county at U-20 grade. The immediate future is bright and if the hurling and football interests can develop an even more harmonious relationship, it could soar.
“A broader approach might propel you more quickly to the higher levels,” says Quinlivan. “And if that stereotype can be challenged, then there is no ceiling. But if it is not challenged, then this generation will pass and you will be right back down to where you were.”
On Sunday, the Tipperary hurling team, who are, of course, one of the favourites for this year’s All-Ireland and the main topic of conversation around the county, play Cork in Thurles.
But the football team are first up, facing Louth, the team they beat in last year’s Division Three final. And a good portion of the crowd will attend early; the footballers are expressive and fantastic to watch. It may occur to those present, at some stage on the double bill, that as a GAA county, Tipperary have never had it so good.
This moment needs to be minded.