Tipperary football All Star Michael Quinlivan, who Michael Heverin remembers playing football as a child on the green in Abbey Meadows in Clonmel
Michael Heverin, the former editor of The Nationalist, who retired last July, casts his eye over Sunday’s big game and discusses his divided loyalties, being a proud Mayo man who has lived in Tipperary for the past 31 years.
Mayo football fans have taken a huge interest in all things Tipperary in the last ten days. Names such as Quinlivan, Sweeney and O’Riordan are now slipping off the tongue when they might not have been all that well known in the county before Sunday week last.
As Sunday approaches, the interest intensifies. Tipperary football is now very much on the minds of all those in the green and red county west of the Shannon.
A Mayo football fans’ blog goes into overdrive after every game the team plays. Virtually every player’s performance is analysed and dissected as the fans share views on formations and plays.
On Sunday week last Mayo were not playing but the blog was as busy as ever – and the only thing on the supporters’ minds was the challenge Mayo would face from a resurgent Tipperary in the semi-final.
There was delight for Tipperary’s achievement. A county waiting 69 years for an All-Ireland title can identify with one waiting 85 years for a Munster crown.
But when the plaudits for Tipperary ended attention turned to the semi-final, and many Mayo fans said they would have preferred to play Cork in the semi rather than Tipp.
Suddenly the narrative turned to who would mark Quinlivan and Sweeney. Would Paddy Durcan, Mayo’s outstanding player of the campaign, get a role to subdue Quinlivan and would Sweeney see Lee Keegan over his shoulder for 70 minutes in Croke Park.
Mayo’s midfield is not its strongest sector, and while Conor Loftus and Mattie Ruane are brilliant footballers they lack height. Mayo fans think team captain Aidan O’Shea may have to be moved out of full forward to the centre to counter the threat of Colin O’Riordan.
If the Breaffy man stays on the edge of the square, that’s a major issue for Tipperary because he has been virtually double-marked in the three championship games to date and that creates space for other dangerous forwards such as Tommy Conroy and Diarmuid O’Connor.
Little did Mayo think at the start of the championship that this would be the conversation before an All-Ireland semi-final if they got there. Safe to say that Kerry and Cork were the more likely options.
Having been exiled from Mayo in Clonmel for over 30 years, I might have been able to help them.
Those three decades in Tipperary – where the stranger is king – immerse you into the life and culture of a county. And working in a newspaper, where sport is such a major part of the weekly coverage, opens your eyes to the vital importance of the GAA.
When my background often came up in conversation, football was generally mentioned and Mayo’s long quest for Sam. And then I would be reminded that not only were Tipp third on the list of All -Ireland hurling final winners but had one more football title than Mayo. Welcome to Tipperary and all that!
When I first arrived in the summer of 1989, the year held great prospects. Mayo were making a charge in football and Tipperary were closing in on ending the hurling famine. Tipp saw the job through but Mayo came up short against Cork in the final.
The sports editor wouldn’t thank me for chronicling here Mayo’s tale of woe in further finals in the 90s and into the new century but suffice to say that all the defeats hurt. It would be a separate story in itself.
Now once again they are two games away from the Holy Grail. But as in 2016, Tipperary are the first hurdle.
And that leads to mixed emotions.
Of course blood is thicker than water and my blood is not just red but green and red.
But while I have followed Mayo’s fortunes from afar for many years, I have been much more in touch with Tipperary football. I have followed their fortunes at club and county level with pen and notebook in hand. I have covered matches that all the present Tipperary panel have played in.
My most recent one was when Conor Sweeney played his usual starring role as Ballyporeen avoided the drop from senior status with victory in Cashel over Moyne-Templetuohy.
And while I have followed and admired all the great Mayo footballers over the past 30 years, I never knew any of them personally. In Tipperary, I got to know and befriend many of the players – and in more recent years, their fathers and mothers!
If anyone in Mayo asked me about Michael Quinlivan and his strengths (many) and weaknesses (if any), I could say that I first saw him kick a ball on the green in Abbey Meadows in Clonmel about 20 years ago where my own children played. If Paddy Durcan does mark him on Sunday, there’s another connection there as he hails from my home town, Castlebar.
So I have skin in the game in Tipperary.
Above: Tipperary players Bill Maher and captain Conor Sweeney show their delight after the Munster final win over Cork
It goes back many years to encounters with great Tipperary football people – to Clonmel’s Michael O’Meara, who sourced my tickets for that 1989 All-Ireland football final just a couple of months after my arrival in town; to Emly’s Mick Frawley, whose passion for Tipperary football knew no bounds; to Barry O’Brien, who had targeted 2020 as a breakthrough year for football in the county; to Aherlow’s Pat Moroney, who put so much effort into the game in west Tipperary and beyond; to Michael Power, father of current manager, David, who never gave up hope.
It was often a lonely furrow to plough but they persisted – and I could empathise with their desire. Provincial titles are ten a penny to Mayo, once more topping the roll of honour in Connacht, but Sam was the target. I could understand what the wait in Tipp for a Munster title felt like.
And of course the desire was as strong – even stronger – among the outstanding footballers who came so close to that elusive provincial crown without ever getting over the line.
The county’s first football All Star Declan Browne has said what a Munster win would have meant to him. His Moyle Rovers team mate Derry Foley was a member of the outstanding Tipperary team that came so close in the 1990s.
Now they are all rejoicing in the victory of their successors and eyeing an even greater prize. The alignment of the stars that saw the four counties that contested the 1920 All Ireland semi-finals win through to the 2020 semi-finals might maintain their heavenly formation and see Tipp and Dublin progress to the decider, with Tipp winning out for the big prize.
In any other year I would write that with a smile on my face. But for Tipp to progress it has to be at the expense of Mayo. Could I wish for that? Could I ever cross the Shannon again?
There were similar mixed messages in my brain for the 2016 semi-final and the 2018 qualifier in Semple Stadium. Fortuitous goals saw Mayo over the line in both games. Robbie Kiely’s black card was crucial in 2016 while the huge Mayo support in Thurles two years ago must have been worth a few points to the visitors.
Now there are two differences. There will be no fans so no chants of ‘Mayo Mayo Mayo’ when the team needs a lift.
And more crucially, Tipperary are going into the game as Munster champions. Their wins over Clare, Limerick and Cork are as significant, if not moreso, than Mayo’s over Leitrim, Roscommon and Galway.
There’s also the belief that Mayo have more experience than Tipp but that’s not the case this year. Manager James Horan has brought significant new blood into the panel and up to seven of the Connacht title winning side were claiming their first provincial medal.
Long standing talisman Andy Moran has retired, key playmaker Jason Doherty is injured as is top defender Brendan Harrison and there must be doubts about bringing Tom Parsons back for such a huge game after his leg break two years ago.
Mayo fans’ favourite player Colm Boyle has not played in the championship to date, Keith Higgins only making a brief appearance as a sub, so Mayo will be looking to players who are not household names and who will be making their first Croke Park appearance if selected – Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLoughlin, Mark Moran, Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue, Bryan Walsh and Jordan Flynn.
However Horan has shown confidence in the young bloods and there’s a belief that the wide open spaces of Croke Park will suit their young legs.
Players who Tipp fans will be more familiar with include tight marking defenders Chris Barrett, Lee Keegan and Paddy Durcan, the O’Connor brothers Cillian and Diarmuid; Kevin McLoughlin from county champions Knockmore, and team captain Aidan O’Shea.
Tipp boss David Power will know that Aidan O’Shea will require keen watching as on his day he can be unstoppable – a job for Jimmy Feehan?
At the other end Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney will face either Durcan, Keegan, Barrett or newcomer Mullin and those contests could be crucial. The talk in Mayo, not surprisingly, is that close tabs need to be kept on the Tipperary pair if Mayo are to win.
But thankfully I wasn’t asked to predict a winner when this article was commissioned. Greater footballing brains than mine will do that across these pages. I was only asked to say how I felt and I have given a long-winded answer to that.
In short, I cannot lose.
If Mayo win it will be yet another stepping stone on the way to redemption. Then there’s only the small matter of Dublin in the final (sorry Cavan people, I know you shocked Donegal but can you do it again? In another twist, my paternal grandmother came from Cavan). The finals have been a bridge too far for Mayo teams but they do tend to win semi-finals.
If Tipperary win, I will remember covering games on cold and windswept days in Clonmel, Fethard, Monroe, Cashel, Kilsheelan, Cloneen, Ardfinnan, Cahir, Golden, New Inn, Boherlahan, Littleton and many more, watching some outstanding players who never got the chance to show their skills on a national stage, and when the prospect of Tipperary playing in an All-Ireland final on the centenary of Bloody Sunday and the death of Michael Hogan seemed a million light years away.
There were so many great players in that time, from the Declan Brownes to the Conor Sweeneys, and they never gave up. This present team continues to carry the torch and are now just one game away from the impossible dream.
It has been a privilege to follow Tipperary’s football journey from my arrival in 1989, as it has been to see Mayo edge closer to their dream on so many memorable days in the past.
As I said, I cannot lose.
For more sport read Munster success was a stepping stone for Tipperary footballers, says David Power