Tipp were sleepwalking into an ambush but they’ll be wide awake now
Galway’s aggression and hunger surprised the Premier men — and it’s a wake-up call they needed
IT’S 20 years ago now, so my memory of events may not be flawless, but I remember having a conversation with Ger Loughnane sometime after round four of the 1997 National Hurling League. We’d beaten Laois in the opener, drawn with Limerick in a typically feisty derby, and defeated Offaly in front of a huge crowd in unseasonably warm weather in Ennis on Easter Sunday. Two weeks later we went down 5-5 to 1-11 to Galway — can you believe that scoreline — in another local derby, this time in front of a full house in Athenry. Two things stand out from that game. The first was the five goals we conceded that wrecked any chance we had of winning the match. The second was the sight of Loughnane doubled-up in agony during the warm-up after taking a stray sliotar to the family jewels. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen the man stuck for words.
With Offaly, ourselves and Wexford having won the previous three All-Irelands, it was the midst of the ‘Revolution’ years. Big crowds were flocking to the matches, and with the pitches dry and firm, the games were played at a faster pace and had more of an edge to them than would normally be the case at that time of the year.
For some reason, injury I presume, I wasn’t training on this particular evening, and found myself chatting at some point during the session to Loughnane. We were shooting the breeze, when I remarked that it was the middle of April and yet it felt like we were in the middle of a championship, rather than a league campaign. It just seemed that we were expending a lot of energy, mental energy, very early in the year. We still had Kilkenny, Tipp and the All-Ireland champions Wexford to come, and I wasn’t sure we could continue going as hard and playing with the same intensity as we were and still have enough in the tank for a long championship run.
Loughnane had his finger on the pulse of the team to such an extent that I’m sure he sensed as much himself. I’m convinced that we definitely took a step back after the defeat to Galway. Don’t get me wrong — we didn’t roll over for Kilkenny and the Tipp game in Ennis was full on, with a nasty edge and undercurrent to it. But we didn’t invest emotionally in those games to anything like the same extent we had in the earlier rounds.
There was no point burning ourselves out, or playing our best hurling in May, when the bigger prizes, the ones we craved, were at stake later in the summer. Loughnane to his credit recognised it, and we wouldn’t have won that year’s All-Ireland if he hadn’t.
A journalist once remarked of my former manager that he was “incapable of uttering anything other than good copy” during his time at the helm in Clare. Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore the devil in him, and 20 years on, not much has changed. On Monday morning he couldn’t resist wading in with both feet after Tipp’s no-show in last Sunday’s national league final. Describing them in his column in The Irish Daily Star as “not even a good team, not to mind a great one”, as well as labelling them “soft and complacent”, won’t have endeared Ger to the Tipperary hurling public. Michael Ryan too may have bristled initially at Loughnane’s analysis of what he only too well knows was a bad day at the office.
The Tipp manager has to have been puzzled by the lethargic nature of the performance his side gave. They were unbelievably flat. He’ll be disappointed too that he didn’t see it coming, or detect any signs of it during the week. But that’s the nature of these things. None of us saw it coming.
The bottom line is that Tipp simply weren’t prepared mentally for what Galway threw at them. While both sides might have come to the fight last Sunday, only one of them was ready to fight — and it wasn’t Tipp. I’m sure that in their own minds they felt that they’d prepared well, and that they were going to perform. But as Mike Tyson famously once said, “everyone has a plan — till they get punched in the mouth”. A few of the Tipp players were clearly taken aback by the aggression and physicality Galway brought. No one typified that more than Daithí Burke. He put in a series of hits over the 70 minutes on a number of Tipp players, and believe me they felt every bit of them. They should have been ready for it. Expecting it even. But they weren’t. And at this level, it’s curtains when that happens.
If Tipp go on to defend their Munster and All-Ireland titles, the events of last Sunday will have played a hugely significant role. The Tipp players now know that there is serious opposition still out there. Hungry opposition, physical opposition, and if their heads aren’t right, there’ll be no back-toback titles. They got a stern warning to that effect from Kilkenny in Thurles a few weeks back. They got a more severe reminder in Limerick last Sunday.
No one will remember who won the 2017 league in ten or 20 years’ time, and he arguably learned more about his side, and what he has on the bench, in defeat than he would in a victory. He also now has a stick to beat his players with. There’s no room in the Tipp dressing room for the mental softness and complacency Loughnane alluded to in Monday’s article. Those words and his criticisms are likely to be nailed on the dressing room door all summer.
That’s bad news for Cork, because any chances of Tipp sleepwalking into an ambush in the championship first round completely evaporated seven days ago.
As for Galway; did we learn anything that we don’t already know about them? The talent is there, but there’s no point now in resting on their laurels. They have to drive on and win the Leinster title. If Kilkenny make it to the final, as I think they will, that becomes a must-win game for Micheál Donoghue’s side.
Finally, for anyone that wants a National League hurling title, the key is to get relegated. Three-in-a-row now for teams from Division 1B. Who would’ve thought it?
Those words and his criticism are likely to be nailed on the door all summer