In general the All-Ireland qualifiers tend to produce two different types of teams: experienced contenders who have slipped up in their province and surprise teams, who wouldn't have featured on many people's radar at the start of the championship.
It's safe to say Tipperary fall into that second category when they take on Mayo in Croke Park next Sunday.
These are two teams that have come through the same back-door system but along entirely different paths. One team has carried extremely high expectation over the last number of years and the weight of a county trying to bridge a gap that gets bigger every summer and currently stands at 55 years.
The other is an entirely new journey by a bold young team who have just had a first quarter-final appearance and with it a famous victory.
There’s no doubt Tipperary are the story of the summer, having risen from a humdrum Division Three season to the last four of the All-Ireland championship. They trail other stories, having lost a number of prominent players from last year’s squad and historically being in the shadow of the county’s hurlers.
I think these tales of adversity are null and void as regards relevance or influence for Sunday’s game. For a start, there are a lot of players in the group who aren’t unhappy about the absentees because otherwise they wouldn’t be playing. It’s not a negative for them.
On the question of support from within the county, the team couldn’t be playing to the level that they are if they were feeling sorry for themselves. They’re playing an expansive, exciting brand of football so they’re not carrying negative baggage or wringing their hands thinking, “God save us. We need such and such in the centre of the park”.
They’re thinking, “we’re here; it’s down to us. This is what we need to do”. I’m sure
has told them “what we need to do it”. They’re not thinking, “if only more people came to support us”.
This is a road these Tipperary players have travelled. They have gone to places like Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Tralee and Killarney with no hope and they have delivered performances and have beaten those teams in their own venues and lifted trophies out of Munster against the provincial powerhouses. They have validated their own belief systems in a really tough environment.
They aren’t a team that’s made a bit of a run in the qualifiers before inevitable defeat. That may be the external view but Tipperary are a team based on players who have actually won things. That’s a massive consideration so I don’t see either of those issues having any relevance whatsoever.
I was interested to hear Mayo manager Stephen Rochford before the Tyrone match speaking about the team's lack of consistency and how without it they'd struggle in the quarter-final. He did add that if the team could hit that level of consistency they'd be very competitive.
He knows that this is the big battleground for him and the team. When they put 70 minutes together and bring everything at their disposal to the game they have the capacity to beat anyone on a given day. Consistency is absolutely key.
I don’t think complacency or a sense of entitlement is a danger here because of where Mayo have come from this summer. In normal circumstances that dynamic could be in play even for a well -prepared team but I can’t see it having a role in this particular game.
The reason is that Mayo have come in under the radar. Probably the best thing that happened to them was getting beaten by Galway because among other things a defeat like that brings into very sharp focus the reality of where a team is.
You are questioned as an individual and as a team. Your county is questioned and ultimately you have to question yourself. My experience of that is that when a group has to look deep inside themselves that can be a powerful process. The fact that this happened: losing their five provincial championships in a row, being written off nationally, shipping a lot of criticism for the team performance and as individuals, Aidan O’Shea in particular after the Fermanagh game.
All of this makes the group very small. Whenever you’re experiencing success the group expands because more and more people want to be associated with success at various levels but whenever the group is questioned after a heavy or painful defeat, that group becomes small again. That happened to Mayo earlier in the championship.
So I don’t see them forgetting what they’ve been through over the past couple of months. They’ve been through all of this during the last five years, carrying the favourites’ tag into matches, particularly in Connacht so it’s not a new experience.
The qualifier route has turned out to be an advantage for Mayo because defeat took the pressure off, both by dampening expectations and bringing them under the radar but the bonus has been the need to look very deep within themselves. This is a crunch moment for them.
Had they been beaten by Tyrone or at an earlier stage in the qualifiers there would have been serious, serious question marks about this team’s ability to come back and win an All-Ireland.
They showed in the quarter-final that they can still operate at a high level. They’re not perfect and they’re not the finished article but they are now well- placed. You also have to ask the question, who is perfect?
Even Dublin, for everything they bring, have probably one or two questions, which encourage other teams to think they can be got at. Kerry are not perfect either and Tipperary are a young team and inexperienced, so they’re not perfect. Mayo are as well-placed as any of them.
Entering the qualifiers as early as they did was also an advantage. It gives a team more time to get over the shock – think how shaken they were against Fermanagh – and gradually find themselves whereas getting beaten in a provincial final, in Ulster anyway, is an extremely difficult loss to deal with in a short space of time.
The other thing about them is they have a lot of leaders – as many as any of the remaining teams and if you look at Kerry some of their leaders are getting on in age whereas the leaders in Mayo are in their prime: Aidan O'Shea, Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, who's a wonderful player. He just glides into position and kicked two top-quality points against Tyrone, including what proved to be the winner.
Then you have Cillian O'Connor, who came right back into form, kicking 1-7, Keith Higgins and young Diarmuid O'Connor who's always ready for a battle, which is a definition of what a leader does. He did it with the under-21s earlier in the year. Age is no barrier.
Another feature of the team this season has been the decision to go with a sweeper, which has been contrary to their thinking in the last couple of years. Look at the All-Ireland finals they lost, particularly the one against Dublin and Bernard Brogan on the edge of the square in a simple one v one and Dublin have manipulated the other players out of the area to create that isolation and the ball's in the back of the net.
The decision to go with a sweeper this year was probably made easier because Dublin themselves went with it and had won the All-Ireland the previous year. But it wasn’t plain sailing because some people would have criticised the use of Kevin McLaughlin in that way. But it’s a work in progress and has been showing signs of late of the consistency that the manager is after.
The last day it worked quite well and McLaughlin was in the right place at the right time most of the time.
The thing about the sweeper system is that it’s 100 per cent about positioning. It’s not about where the ball is but where you think it will be and I think he’s been developing that sense.
Tipperary have a more traditional system in that they play to their strengths up front but also they work incredibly hard. They got traction by beating Cork but then were well-beaten by Kerry so they’ve done incredibly well to respond.
The way the manager has them playing and the belief they have in him and his system has led to a relentlessness in the way they play the game.
Their spirit doesn’t flag regardless of what happens in a game and they have been in some very sticky situations and yet managed to find a way to win, which in turn strengthens the self-validation.
The big thing about this Tipperary team and what differentiates them from other outsiders who have gone deep into the championship is that they have the experience of being winners because of the county’s success at underage level over a number of years.
We played Tipperary at under-21 level in 2010 and a lot of the players, such as
and Ciarán McDonald, were playing that night. They had beaten Kerry – in Kerry – that year to win the Munster title and they won it again last year and were in the All-Ireland final. They’ve won a minor All-Ireland.
They had no psychological baggage going in to play the Connacht champions. Absolutely zero. They were going in to implement their own game plan. People were saying that that game plan was maybe a wee bit naive going into Croke Park and playing this really, really expansive brand of football.
When the pressure dramatically intensifies can you keep on believing in that brand of football? That’s exactly what Liam Kearns has managed to do: cultivate a highly skilled group of players, which is what they are, and mould them into the machine that they have become.
They understand if they just keep believing in what they’re doing and work extremely hard that the ball will fall their way and that in possession they have the game plan and skills to execute it when they get into the other half of the field.
It would for example have been easy to question all of that against Derry up in Breffni Park and revert to some default button but that never happened. They kept on believing in what they were doing and seeing it through.
For them that was a crunch moment but it works the same way in reverse. Even when they played Galway and were dominating the play in the middle of the park they kept going forward, kicking for scores and diagonally into Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney for goals. The only change to what they were doing was the score tally that kept going up.
That to me says they have a focus on the key things that make their game plan work. I expect Tipperary to bring everything that they’ve brought in the championship so far when they line out again at headquarters on Sunday.
The chances of them going into Croke Park and suddenly getting vertigo: “oh, we’re a Division Three side up against Mayo, one of the main contenders?” That’s not going to happen in my view because the manager has instilled belief in the system and they know from experience that if they work hard and continue to do what they’ve been doing all season – all the things that have got them this far – they can go even farther.
It has the makings of a brilliant game but for me maybe Mayo’s experience of what it takes to win matches such as this can be potentially decisive.