“Fortune favours the brave.”
That’s RTÉ’s tagline for this Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final between Mayo and Tipperary. Few would, or could, have predicted at the start of the year that this encounter would take place, as Mayo, perennial favourites, take on Tipperary – a team that has not contested a semi-final since 1935.
Yet here the men from the Premier find themselves; 70 minutes from immortality and a September date that every footballer dreams of.
There’s been a lot of talk of Tipperary being the story of the summer; a fairytale that many see Mayo ending on Sunday afternoon. Darragh Ó Sé wrote this week that Mayo haven’t got time for Tipperary’s fairytale while Colm O’ Rourke also believes this to be a step too far for Liam Kearns and his troops. Yet what exactly about Tipperary’s exploits this year has them limited to a fairytale? Sure, it’s a dream come true but there’s a difference between fairytales and dreams.
Dreams are worked for and can be achieved but dreams like Tipperary’s become fairytales when people stop working, stop believing.
In 2011 the Tipperary minor footballers won the All-Ireland and since then they have achieved success at U-21 level, yet it hadn’t translated to senior success until now. Despite being competitive in Munster, they have endured inconsistent runs in the qualifiers and few saw that changing this year. The news that many of their young promising players were pursuing a summer abroad or a code change, along with Colin O’ Riordan’s opportunity to play in the AFL, meant that hopes faded that this year would yield any significant change in their fortunes. Tipperary had enough valid excuses to hang their heads and lament their misfortune as another uneventful year slipped by playing football in the shadows.
But fortune favours the brave.
Their league campaign was dodgy at best, finishing third from bottom of Division 3, just outside the dreaded drop to the final stop of Division 4. Coming to the start of the championship, few were even speaking of Tipperary, and if they were it was about everything that was going wrong; the missing players, the popularity of hurling etc.
Yet they set up a meeting with Cork; a county with their own woes but deemed traditional enough to swat away the challenge of a struggling Tipp team. They had been warned though. Cork had barely escaped Tipperary’s clutches in Munster in recent years but they wouldn’t escape this time. A couple of late kicks from Ken O’ Halloran finally saw Tipperary finish the animal off for the first time since 1944. History and a Munster final beckoned.
Again few gave Tipperary a chance. This was all about Kerry. Former Kingdom footballers worried about the level of preparation a clash with Tipperary would provide before an All-Ireland quarter-final. Kerry got through easily but with a major issue regarding their defence. Tipperary had breached their half-back line and full-back line too many times for the demands for Kerry to be playing higher quality opposition to be made in genuine sincerity.
A fourth round qualifier clash with a coming-to-form Derry team had everything football supporters wanted. Two teams desperate for progress, a nice brand of football and even controversy over Joe Brolly and Colm O’ Rourke’s ‘laughgate’. It turned into one of the games of the season and Tipperary prevailed. Conor Sweeney taking over the late point scoring on this occasion.
An All-Ireland quarter-final. This was now unchartered waters. Unprecedented. Tipperary would struggle. Galway were a traditional powerhouse of Gaelic football. They had defeated Mayo. Mayo for goodness sake! A Connacht Championship and a place in the quarter-final against Tipperary. What could go wrong?
But fortune favours the brave.
3-06 combined for Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney saw a much easier than expected win for the Premier county to book a place in their first All-Ireland semi-final since 1935. A ten-point win on a day when Tipperary’s forwards showed everyone how potent their attack was. It could have been worse for Galway though, as Quinlivan and Philip Austin were unlucky not to raise more green flags as they ran riot in Croke Park.
And so here we are. All-Ireland semi-final day is almost upon us. Mayo stand in the way of a massive day in September for Tipperary.
This is no fairytale. Kearns and his group of players are not the story of the summer. They’re more than that. They’re the light, maybe not at the end of tunnel, but throughout the tunnel. Of the four teams left, they have consistently played the most exciting brand of attacking football. And (cue gasps) that includes Dublin too.
This Tipperary team isn’t an underdog that got lucky either. They’re more than that also. They have a brand of football that suits them. Maybe it’s dangerous and maybe they’ll find themselves exposed on Sunday but they’ve stuck to their guns so far and will be a match for Mayo if this comes down to a straight shootout.
Mayo have been toying with Kevin McLaughlin as a sweeper for a while now and this will be the acid test if Tipperary can start well. I can’t see them straying too much from their attacking style as pressure comes on them to set up more defensively. They’ve conceded big scores this year but at the end of the day, they’ve scored more and won and that has always been the way the game has been won. It sounds simple but it’s obviously not as the majority of teams have handpassed themselves laterally across the field and right out of the championship weeks ago.
This doesn’t mean that Tipperary are a bunch of have-a-go heroes either. They’re quality footballers all around the field and they have chosen and have been allowed to back themselves and their abilities. The fact that they are blatantly enjoying their football is also a great antidote to the career whingers and cliché managers who talk and say nothing and who have cast a dull cloud over Gaelic football in recent times.
Mayo are hot favourites. It won’t be easy for Tipperary.
But then, fortune favours the brave.
Ciara O’Toole, Pundit Arena