It was yet another chastening experience as this hurling league sinks ever deeper into the morass.
Salthill has been a happy hunting ground for Tipperary teams over the past decade but Sunday bucked that trend: another dismal opening half, another defensive sieve coughing up goals and another wretched day for the fans.
Sunday next offers a last chance saloon where, despite all that’s gone before, victory over Dublin could see us move on to a league quarter final. On present trends, though, not too many will be backing that option.
We went into the west on Sunday hoping that our great record against the Tribesmen would see the team mount something of a resurrection. By half time, however, it had all taken on the appearance of a wake. Once more defensive frailty cost us heavily. The first goal was a well-worked ensemble move from outfield, with Niall Healy supplying the rasping finish. Healy had been bothering Michael Cahill since the start.
In bother too was Paddy Stapleton, trying to cope with the physical presence of Jonathan Glynn. That particular difficulty forced the concession of a penalty, which Conor Cooney rifled home for goal number two. Glynn finished the third himself as he worked his way in from the left corner, exposing Cathal Barrett’s lack of resistance.
Those three strikes were the critical items in a half which saw Tipperary offer tame resistance. Galway were industrious, Tipperary lethargic. Despite our defensive difficulties the first two substitutions focused on midfield and attack: Kieran Bergin in for Woodlock, Eoin Kelly on for Conor Kenny. Eventually – belatedly – Paudie Maher went full back to shore up resistance.
It had been a dismal half, playing with the stiff wind but looking second rate and trailing by eight at the interval. The attack looked toothless apart from one little cameo in the early minutes when good approach work by Shane McGrath and ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer saw goalie Callanan pull off ping-pong saves from Mikey Heffernan and ‘Bonner’ Maher. How we could have done with a goal at that stage!
The second half brought no immediate relief, though the haemorrhaging of goals was stanched, Paudie Maher regaining some of the aerial supremacy which had so characterised his play in past seasons. Denis Maher was in for Noel McGrath and Conor O’Brien for Mikey Heffernan. Later Paddy Murphy replaced Michael Cahill.
Early in the second period Shane McGrath, now at midfield, went forward to hit a pair of points but mostly we relied on Callanan frees without making any serious indent on the lead. It wasn’t until Iarla Tannian was red carded near the end that we finally managed to get a run on the locals, scoring 1-3 without reply. Callanan hit the goal from a bouncing free and it put late pressure on Galway’s rearguard but in truth we didn’t deserve to get anything from this game.
The cumulative effect now of four sub-standard displays heaps pressure on all concerned. The tweeted report of loud noise from the Tipp dressing room afterwards has been interpreted as indicating major angst within the camp. It will certainly facilitate the conspiracy theorists. A counter view is that if voices weren’t raised after yet another pathetic display then they might as well fold camp and go home.
After four rounds this now rates as our worst league series for years. Morale has been badly bruised, confidence is on the floor. The management must accept a great deal of the blame. We’ve sent out strange selections with some odd positionings and even odder reasons being offered for some choices. It has all looked shapeless, even clueless in terms of some defensive structures particularly. Then remedial action during games has been slow.
The manager himself hasn’t helped matters with some of his press briefings. I suspect those after-match meetings with headline-seeking hacks is not a role he relishes and in truth some of his pronouncements have baffled followers and contributed to the overall air of uncertainty. Being dismissive of the league was a major blunder and then talking about there being no pressure and wanting players to enjoy themselves sounded downright silly. The fans certainly haven’t enjoyed what’s happening and my best advice to Eamon O’Shea is to steer clear of social media at the moment for his own peace of mind - just like he was once advised not to read this column.
The lack of confidence among the players was palpable on Sunday at Salthill. Even our go-to players are rushing things and fumbling and so many are standing off instead of digging in. It’s that lack of drive that really frustrates the followers.
And yet, amazingly, this league could still be resurrected. After twelve games in the top flight our defeat to Clare was the only ‘home’ loss so far. Had we won that encounter then all six teams would now be locked on four points apiece, with everything riding on the final round of matches.
So let’s see what the requirement for next Sunday is. Essentially we need to beat Dublin by a minimum of three points and then hope that Kilkenny do likewise to Waterford. The Kilkenny game is at Nowlan Park so that part of the prescription seems likely on known form – the difficulty will be trying to do the job at Semple Stadium. If we win by three and Waterford lose by three then Dublin, Tipperary and the Deise will each finish on four points and each will have a score difference of minus ten. In that scenario the amount scored by each team over the span of the league will decide positions and it’s quite ironic that we’re well ahead in that department. So then Dublin and Waterford would play-off in the relegation battle. Galway might also finish on four points but their score difference is significantly better on plus seven at the moment.
So it’s all to play for on Sunday in a game that thankfully has been switched to Semple Stadium. The line out will be watched with interest. At this stage you’d expect Paudie Maher to play full back with O’Mahony at centre, providing the twin pillars around which we need to construct a barrier to Dublin’s progress. Getting that end of the pitch right is vital, which may even require a return of Kieran Bergin to wing back. Paddy Stapleton on present form may struggle to earn a starting slot but Cathal Barrett has been caught out for several goals too in recent games, though he looks the better of the two going forward.
Brendan Maher is another option for wing back, with McGrath returning to his more natural midfield home, perhaps beside Woodlock who started poorly last Sunday. The forwards need a major shake-up too. We need players who will hopefully graft and not skim around the edges. If ‘Bonner’ Maher could regain form it would be a major plus and we need less static play from ‘Bubbles’ who was blocked down too handily last Sunday.
It’s a big game for everyone and hopefully the narrative will be brighter next week.
What a pity Mount Leinster Rangers didn’t complete the fairytale. There’s no substitute for experience and Portumna just had that little more guile where it mattered. Still the Carlow champs have earned respect after a phenomenal year for the club. Important they stay positive and come again because there’s real quality in the side and all neutrals would love to see them make the breakthrough.