Tipperary football manager Liam Kearns looks on as his side go down badly to Limerick in this year's Munster Senior Football Championship.
THIS is it now for the Tipperary senior footballers, on Sunday next at Esler Park, Newry, against Down, they do or they die. Win and they may yet resurrect what has been, up to now, a very disappointing year, lose and their championship for 2019 will be over in the quickest possible manner, two defeats on the trot, done and dusted, by June 9.
The county’s league campaign was little short of a disaster for all involved, ultimately - after just one win from seven games - ending in relegation to Division 3. For the most part that Spring campaign was plagued by manager Liam Kearns having to field understrength teams from game to game. It was an extra weight that proved too much for Tipperary to carry in the end. The county’s two-year reign in Division 2 ended with a home defeat to Clare, on March 24, a result that saw the county fall through the trapdoor along with Cork.
With the return of missing players from injury and travels, and with six weeks of training in their legs, there were high hopes that the Munster Championship would see a return to winning ways for The Premier. With home advantage against Division 4 side Limerick, who themselves had only managed two league wins (against London and Waterford), the Gaelic football world and beyond expected a comfortable Tipp win. It wasn’t to be, and not by a long shot either. On Saturday evening, May 11, Limerick walloped Tipperary by seven points at Semple Stadium, 3-11 to 1-10. It was the worst performance from Tipp, by his own admission, since Liam Kearns took on the job for the start of the league in 2016 - incidentally a day they drew with Limerick in Kilmallock.
And at the weekend, Tipperary’s poor line of form was exposed further. Limerick were destroyed by Cork in the Munster semi-final by 3-18 to 0-6. Also up in Ulster, Armagh who took extra-time to overcome Down in Round 1, were involved in a super clash with Cavan that even extra-time failed to decide. Down, it seems, are in a good place at present, preparing for the visit of the Munster side.
Tipperary football captain Conor Sweeney in action against Limerick in the Munster SFC Championship.
On Thursday night last, Liam Kearns, when speaking to the local press at Dr. Morris Park in Thurles, admitted that now was the crunch time for the Tipp footballers to stand up and be counted.
“It’s do or die now anyway,” said the former Austin Stacks and Kerry footballer.
“We have turned it around before and we have flipped the odds numerous times - these players have not become a bad team or bad players overnight.
“We will be having a right go on Sunday and I am expecting a big performance,” the former Limerick and Laois county manager added.
The vastly experienced Kearns knows that a mountain lies ahead for Tipp on Sunday against the Mourne men.
Managed by Paddy Tally, Down, despite playing for a significant period of the contest with 14 men against Armagh in the Ulster championship, took the game to extra-time and may well have earned a positive result with a bit of luck (3-13 to 2-17). Armagh, in turn, on Sunday last should have beaten Division 1 side Cavan in Clones, a game refereed by Ardfinnan’s Derek O’Mahoney, which will now go to a replay.
Outside of their historic pedigree Down will also present Tipperary with a complex tactical problem - teams coached by Paddy Tally know how to defend.
Tipperary goalkeeper Evan Comerford.
“They are going to have 14 men behind the ball - even at home that is the way that they play. They are very fast; they have huge pace. They move the ball quickly and have good finishers. With 14 men they very nearly got past Armagh and Armagh have given us loads of it for the last number of years,” Liam Kearns explained before adding that the Premier County are “complete underdogs”.
Tipperary, however, will be encouraged by the memory of victories over Derry in Derry during the 2016 qualifiers (1-21 to 2-17), against Cavan in Kingspan Breffnie Park during the 2017 campaign (2-15 to 0-18) and, of course, Liam Kearns’ men also earned their place in Division 2 of the Allianz National Football League when they beat Armagh in the Athletic Grounds (3-8 to 0-16) in 2017.
“We are better away from home - our record in Thurles, unfortunately, would be the one disappointment that I would have over the four years that I have been in charge,” Liam Kearns said.
“Our record in Thurles wouldn’t be good enough. Teams love coming to Thurles - they just seem to love the pitch and the aura; they seem to raise their game in Thurles. Definitely, going away does not inhibit us in the slightest.”
The manager went on to praise the response of his side to the significant setback against Limerick.
“The reaction has been fantastic. I can’t fault their effort in training and their commitment to training - they have given a huge commitment throughout the year and certainly since the league finished. And, since that Limerick match they have been exemplary. They have really showed that they want to make amends,” he added.
Liam Kearns was also forthright in his analysis of the Limerick defeat - the Tipperary manager is prepared to admit that the “calculated risk” associated with starting Robbie Kiely, Shane O’Connell, Bill Maher and Josh Keane in their first competitive game of the year back-fired.
Tipperary defender Shane O'Connell in action against Limerick.
“At least five players played their first competitive match against Limerick. We have had so many injury problems and so many issues that we took liberties against Limerick and we got found out. It’s as simple as that,” Liam Kearns explained before admitting that he did regret some of the selection decisions made.
“I do, in hindsight, because of the result. We were looking further down the line and we were trying to get them ready. You make calculated decisions and the result, the performance and everything about it suggests that we got it wrong,” Liam Kearns said.
“As manager, ultimately, the buck stops with me - I have to produce my team on championship day ready to play. I am 13 years at it at inter-county level and that was the worst performance by any championship team that I have ever produced. I am straight up and honest about things - the buck stops with the manager and as far as I am concerned that was a terrible performance. You can talk about mitigating circumstances, but at the end of the day we have to be ready to play championship football. Excuses are not worth anything to anybody. And, it wasn’t that we lost, it was the way that we lost it - the performance just was not good enough.”
Thankfully, Tipperary now find themselves in a much better place. The injuries have cleared up and the panel is, generally, good health and ready to play.
The only real concern surrounds a hamstring injury picked up by Ardfinnan’s Gavin Whelan whom Liam Kearns describes as “very unfortunate” since he also missed the entire league campaign due to an ankle ligament complaint.