With key players in their twilight years, this could be a watershed year for Tipperary hurlers

Liam Sheedy's team prepares for return to action next weekend






Seamus Callanan

Seamus Callanan is part of a thirty-something brigade and golden generation of Tipperary hurlers who have done it all, says Westside

As the county senior hurlers rev up for a return to action on Saturday week there’s an unavoidable sense that 2021 is a pivotal year for the team. Is there a last fling in this generation, which has brought us such priceless success, or has the tipping point already passed?
Hurling, like all sports, tends to go in cycles. You have your peaks and valleys, where you try to prolong the former and limit the latter. For the past decade Tipperary rode a wave of prominence and prizes and the question now arises as to where we sit in the cycle – past the peak, for sure, but how far down the descending slope will be answered in the coming weeks and months.
Tide and time wait for no man, as the saying goes, and the clock is certainly ticking for a core section of the present team. Seamie Callanan will be 33 in September. Brendan Maher and Paudie Maher hit 32 last January and February respectively. Bonner Maher will be 32 in October and Noel McGrath celebrates his 31st in December.
These are the thirty-something brigade, a golden generation of Tipperary hurlers who have done it all.
Since their emergence around 2009 they’ve been colossuses – or colossi if you prefer something more pronounceable – of the hurling world. They’ve been model players and sportsmen and given us memories to last a lifetime.
As a sestet they’ve supplied the very heartbeat of the team. Yet now they inhabit that twilight zone where powers begin to fade and retirement looms.
Given their exemplary dedication over the years it’s possible they could extend their careers for a few more seasons. But will they?
There’s big mileage on the clock and one suspects their futures are inextricably linked to Liam Sheedy. They began with the Portroe man nearly a decade and-a-half ago and it would be difficult to see them trying to acclimatise to a new man at this stage of their careers.
The manager is in the final year of his term and, on past evidence, tends not to hang around. Should 2021 turn out poorly for the team then it’s most unlikely Sheedy would continue. In that scenario it would be no surprise if some – or all – of the above named decided to call it a day. What a tipping point that would be!
Of course, if the All-Ireland title was regained in 2021 then that might change everything. And there sits the focus for the moment.
What are the odds? The team may be ageing but the bookies still rate Tipperary as one of the top contenders. Unsurprisingly Limerick are the top fancy at odds of 5/4, followed by Galway at 4/1 and then Tipperary at 11/2.
That puts us ahead of Kilkenny (15/2) and Cork (10/1). Waterford are listed at 14/1 with Wexford on 18/1. Given the lack of spring action all of this is based on last year’s form so it will be interesting to see how things pan out.
If you’ve a superstitious nature then here’s something to take some cheer from – years ending in the number one digit have been the most successful for Tipperary hurling since the start of the championship back in 1887. Five of the county’s 28 All-Ireland titles were won in years ending in one, which is more than for any other year number.
The most recent was 2001, the Nicky English-managed year, when we completed the league/championship double. The All-Ireland final was a tight-run affair with Galway. Mark O’Leary scored 2-1 and Declan Ryan collected his third Celtic Cross in three decades. Tommy Dunne was captain.
Going back the years then, of course, Nicky English was on board himself for the 1991 success. It was a crucial one for that particular generation because without it the ’89 win would always carry an asterisk, as Antrim were the opponents.
In ’91 you had the spectacular Munster draw and replay against Cork in a campaign in which Tipperary beat all the main contenders along the way – Limerick, Cork, Galway and Kilkenny.
The final wasn’t a standout game. In fact, looking back at it recently one was struck by the modest quality of the hurling and the fact that Tipperary could easily have been caught. Michael Cleary’s slice of luck for the game’s only goal was crucial. Pat Fox was man of the match and Declan Carr the winning captain.
When we think of finals we could have won and didn’t – ’09 immediately comes to mind - they need to be balanced by recognising the ones we could so easily have lost.
The 1971 final was one I’ve dealt with in a recent column, one that holds particular memories for me. If ’91 was the end of that post-famine renaissance period for Tipperary hurling then ’71 was definitely a throwback to the glorious sixties, as well as a final fling for that era.
Tipperary beat Clare, Limerick and Galway on their way to Croke Park and again the final was a close-run event with Kilkenny. High-scoring and spectacular in ways, we just about got the breaks and the edge in a match that could easily have slipped away. Incidentally our win ratio in finals is top notch, bettered only by Kerry’s hurlers who played one and won one for a 100% return.
When I think of the 1961 All- Ireland win over Dublin the words of the recently-departed Theo English immediately spring to mind.
“We were the luckiest team ever to win that All Ireland …. we won against the run of play … Dublin deserved to win that day … I was on Des Foley and got a roasting. John Doyle got a terrible roasting off Achille Boothman.”
It’s a stunningly honest assessment of Tipperary’s one-point win over the Dubs. Tipp got to the final with wins over Galway (then playing in Munster) and Cork in that famous Munster final where Tom McLoughney got injured. Matt Hassett was the winning captain.
Finally, there was the 1951 All-Ireland win where Tipperary put seven goals past Wexford. They survived a tough Munster campaign to get to the final beating Waterford, Limerick and then Cork in the decider, where Christy Ring gave one of his greatest-ever displays.
Jimmy Finn was captain in the final when Tipperary completed a three-in-a-row by taking the county’s sixteenth title.
So, the omens for digit number one are good. However, a more clinical calculation of our 2021 prospects might be more pessimistic.
With the core of the team ageing, the focus switches to the upcoming material. Liam Cahill’s underage wins might suggest a readymade conveyor belt of talent, but such is not the case. Cahill’s champions have struggled to make the senior grade and if that scenario doesn’t improve then it’s difficult to see a bright outlook for this year.
Ger Browne has left the panel from last year but there are notable additions in Eoghan Connolly, Alan Tynan and Billy McCarthy.
The Sarsfields’ man suffered an horrific double whammy of injuries so his very presence back on the panel testifies to great depths of resilience.
His last injury happened at a time when he was really making an impact so the hope is that he can get back to that level – and fast.
Alan Tynan, a dual minor in 2015, was a surprise addition by Liam Sheedy because he’d missed out on the intervening years when concentrating on rugby.
However he was back playing with Roscrea last year and obviously showed something that convinced Liam Sheedy he has potential.
Eoghan Connolly’s promotion was no surprise. He’s been working his way up through the ranks and is widely seen as one with the necessary qualities to make the step-up to senior. Even if 2021 proves to be too soon, he’s definitely one for the future.
So, a new season beckons, albeit another truncated one squeezed into a narrow pocket of around four months to carry off both league and championship.
Like most others, Liam Sheedy opted for a five-game league rather than a three-match series. In this assessment, one suspects, the league will not be a major priority; getting game time for as many as possible will be the target. Limerick might know their likely fifteen for championship but teams like Tipperary certainly don’t.
The summer hurling, as opposed to the winter misery of last year, might assist Tipperary’s lighter-touch game too, though I often feel these aspects can be exaggerated.
There’s talk of extending the number of substitutes, possibly from five to seven, as opposed to unlimited replacements, which some favour. Such a move would likely aid the stronger panels.
When the action gets going it will be a hectic programme, with little time to catch breath.
Where will Tipperary sit when it’s all over in late August? Either back as kingpins or awaiting retirement announcements. Either way it’s a big year for the team.

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