Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

Nicky English: Tipperary blend old virtues and modern guile

It was almost impossible to see where 14-man Kilkenny would manage to get a goal

This was an historic victory for Tipperary. It means that for the first time since the 1960s there are players in the county with three All-Ireland medals in a decade: Pádraic Maher, Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath and Séamus Callanan. All showed great leadership in making it happen both throughout the season as well as in the final.

It was beyond imagining when walking out of the Gaelic Grounds in June that the team that had been overwhelmed by Limerick would recover and win the All-Ireland by 14 points less than two months later.

All the expectations of a tight contest were fundamentally altered when the match stopped being 15-a-side. Kilkenny were beginning to creak and although manfully trying to prevent Tipperary from creating space in attack, whatever chance they had evaporated when they went down to 14.

Richie Hogan's red-card foul on Cathal Barrett probably looked worse than it was but it was rash – he might have been frustrated by a wide he'd hit as well as a previous clash with Barrett – and you can't come in with an elbow on the jaw.

Even by that point the match was shifting in Tipperary’s direction. Kilkenny had a better start, winning possession, coming out on top of the rucks and using the ball well whereas Tipp were the opposite, struggling with their touch in the downpour.


Cillian Buckley was having an impact at midfield but Kilkenny missed a couple of scores – Walter Walsh had one terrible wide, a clearly out-of-sorts Adrian Mullen had another and crucially, John McGrath got a crucial hook on Colin Fennelly.

Tipperary had a couple of sorties up the field. Pádraic Maher and Brendan Maher showed great leadership to go up the field and get frees, edging it back from five points down before the goal by Niall O’Meara and then the sending off shortly afterwards. You knew the ground had shifted.

How do you close down space with 14 men? What do you do to create scoring chances up front? They had half-time to re-organise but the floodgates opened early in the second half.

First, Séamus Callanan from a series of Kilkenny errors: John McGrath exploited them, got the chance to shoot and Callanan finished it. Bubbles O’Dwyer began to find space and Noel McGrath was lording it in the middle of the field. Calling it ominous for Kilkenny was an understatement.

They were really struggling to create any type of space for themselves in attack. Ball after ball was launched in – despite the foundation of this Tipperary defence being built on aerial power in 2016. Both Wexford and Kilkenny in the last two matches have been forced down that route to try to create goals.

You had Ronan Maher and Barry Heffernan outstanding in the air and Séamus Kennedy brilliantly athletic – look at the way he beat Richie Leahy to a late ball and drove down the field to make a score for John McGrath – and if anything actually did get through, Cathal Barrett was there sweeping.

Walter Walsh was moved into the full forwards with TJ Reid but was out-fetched on numerous occasions and any of the rucks that formed in front of the Tipperary goal were won by defenders. It was almost impossible to see where Kilkenny would get a goal – any goal let alone the number they would need.


Bubbles’ goal marked the end but Tipperary played very well to turn it into a procession. They won ball at the back and used it well. They were able to bring on subs, who did the damage they had done against Wexford, revelling in the open space with their pace and aggression.

I think the period after John McGrath’s red card and Lee Chin’s goal for Wexford in the semi-final was a crucial statement by Tipperary. It meant that they were never going to be blind-sided by the aggression Kilkenny brought to their semi-final against Limerick.

The slickness of the hurling has been obvious but the power of the defence is really what Tipperary have brought to Croke Park in the last month with the full ferocity of the county’s traditional back play: great in the air and physically powerful, they have built the platform.

Then, crucially they have adapted to the modern game through the tremendous performances on Noel McGrath at midfield where he has handled huge amounts of ball and scored when needed. He was given way too much space in the second half for a player of his guile and ability to use possession.

From the position Tipperary were in last year to Sunday has been a fair old journey. Liam Sheedy took a big personal chance in agreeing to come back to manage the team. That's his personality though. Liam is a real force of nature and his backroom team was well chosen and you knew coming up that Tipp would give a performance.