By Stephen Gleeson
Most great success stories in sport start with a vision rather than by accident and so it was with the Tipp Minors’ historic victory in the 2011 minor football final. Plans made years before bloomed and the traditional counties sat up and took notice.
The new kids in the big smoke that day beat a Dublin team that contained football household names in 2020 such as Small, Kilkenny, Lowndes, Costello, McCaffrey and Mannion. Tipperary went up from the countryside as underdogs and went home as champions. It heralded the start of a very successful period for Tipp football teams. The foundation of the success came from the work behind the scenes in previous years and that win brought football to the forefront in the county according to Tipperary football committee PRO Enda O’Sullivan: “It gave football in the county a huge lift. You have to remember previous to that the last All-Ireland we won was in 1934. They didn’t actually win a final…as they were supposed to meet the winners of Tyrone and Dublin but both Tyrone and Dublin were kicked out of the championship for fielding illegal players. Tipp won it by default, so to actually win one on the field of play after such a long gap meant it was a hugely emotional day in Croke Park.”
The minor team that won that day was the progression of a bunch of players that were used to winning at all grades up along to minor level. Enda O’Sullivan takes up the story: “That team won Munster titles at Under 14, 15 and 16, so there was the nucleus of a very good team. Our underage coaches at the time did tremendous work and they got the absolute best out of that team. There was something big coming at that stage and it wasn’t a complete surprise they came along. I remember talking to David Power afterwards and I remember asking him how were they so confident as they were coming from a county that wasn’t used to winning. He thought about it for a few minutes and he came back to me and said it was actually from playing soccer. A lot of them had been playing on very successful Clonmel-based soccer teams and he felt a lot of the confidence and inner belief came from playing on those teams. I think in 2012 it was Mayo that beat that team in the All-Ireland semi-final and it was actually the first time a lot of those players had experienced defeat playing for Tipperary. So they were incredibly successful and it had been building and it had come along with the work being done with Tipp GAA development squads of the time.”
The success meant that interest in the bunch of players grew from there. As well as those who experienced success at soccer, a number of players went to Rockwell College and played rugby there. Others, such as John Meagher and Liam McGrath, played hurling to a high level with their clubs and with Tipp teams. Football was where it was at though, as county chair, Barry O’Brien, and others in the background aided the growth of the sport. David Power as manager brought the right mix for success with the result being that the game became more glamorous and attractive to young players within the county. Other counties took notice and looked to mirror the Tipp success story and put the same plans in place.
Tipp football went up a notch in rankings and the minor winners progressed over time and reached an Under-21 All-Ireland final four years after the minor victory. Enda O’Sullivan feels that minor team has been the backbone of Tipperary football since they arrived on the scene: “In the 2015 Under-21 All-Ireland final they came up against Tyrone. I suppose maybe a bit of experience and the dark arts cost them a title. Players like Evan Comerford, Bill Maher, Colin O Riordan along with a few others were there since the minor days. They went on to senior then. I think I counted 14 from that minor team that played senior football with Tipperary. Now not all of them made it but a lot had good careers. Our current goalkeeper Evan Comerford is one of the best in the game. I was talking to one of his former coaches in Clonmel Town soccer club and he reckoned Evan had the talent to make it as a professional goalkeeper in soccer in England but thankfully from a Tipp GAA point of view he stayed home. The full back that day, John Meagher, has developed into one of the best full backs in the country; he’s incredibly effective. There are very few forwards that get anything off John Meagher. He’s a very talented hurler as well but he chose the football, settled in well to senior football and is now one of the first names on the team.”
“Of course there was the great Colin O Riordan,” O’Sullivan continues, “He’s since made it in professional sport playing Australian Rules football. He was one of the young stars, not just in Tipperary, but in the game itself. He had it all and could have been one of the great players in the game but he has made a great career Down Under in professional sport and more power to him. Another star was Steven O’Brien who is selected to play midfield with Tipperary in just about every game since then, bar the time he spent playing hurling with Tipp. He’s another powerful player who has made it with Tipp football. I remember him at colleges level and saw him play with DCU – I think it was in the Sigerson cup final. He ran the show that day. Ian Fahey is another but he has been unfortunate with injuries. He had a superb game against Dublin in that minor final and looked like a fella destined for the big time. He never got a run at senior level due to injury. Bill Maher was also superb that day in 2011.”
One player singled out for praise from that minor team of 2011 was the All-Ireland winning captain, Liam McGrath. The Loughmore club member is equally at home playing hurling or football and played a captain’s role that day according to the PRO of the Tipperary football committee: “That day he showed maturity beyond his years. He scored a goal inside two minutes when he burst through the centre of the Dublin defence, down at the Hill 16 end. I suppose scoring that goal into the Hill 16 end with thousands of Dublin supporters there, set the tone for the day. Tipp were up there to win and not for the day out. It set the tone among players, management and supporters. The interesting thing is that just at full-time, who had gathered possession of the ball just before? Only Liam McGrath. He’s gone on to be a very good forward for the Tipp seniors. I suppose, with the media it’s Conor Sweeney or Mikey Quinlivan who take the headlines but Liam is a key forward and always comes away with two or three points a game. He doesn’t grab the headlines but he’s a very important player when he’s available.”
Others too have contributed to Tipp football with Mikey Quinlivan, Jason Lonergan and Colman Kennedy all playing key roles that day and and playing a part since then too for Tipp football. For Enda one of the standout moments of the 2011 win was when Colman Kennedy scored a vital goal, something that became his trademark. “I don’t think the TV cameras captured it fully,” O’Sullivan says, “I was in the Cusack Stand that day and I remember as he picked up possession my head was screaming at him ‘put it over the bar!’ but my heart wanted him to go for goal. He went for the goal. With the flight of it the ball seemed to be going straight for the goalkeeper and then it curved and curved some more and into the top corner. The trajectory of the ball wasn’t captured by the TV cameras. That was an unbelievable moment for Tipp supporters. The following year in the Munster final he got an even better goal. The ball was bouncing near the end line and he just fisted it over the Kerry goalkeeper and into the net. A fantastic finish from a tremendous talent. It’s brilliant that he is now back playing with the Tipp senior footballers after playing soccer in America and with the Limerick FC side too for a few years. We’ve got a lot out of one minor team. I think it’s an amazing achievement to have got 14 players from one minor team going on to play at senior level. Usually six or seven is a good crop but that group were exceptional. Add in the manager that day, David Power, he is now the current senior manager. Tipp football has done really well out of that group.”
Tipperary ran out one-point winners at Croke Park in the end. On a 1-14 to 3-9 scoreline, they marked it out as a day Tipperary football supporters would never forget.
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