WHEN Barry O’Brien took over as Tipperary county board chairman in December 2008, his passionate opening address may have provoked some muffled sniggers among more sceptical delegates.
O’Brien insisted that Tipperary football teams should be aiming for All-Ireland titles at minor, junior, U21 and senior levels by 2020.
It may have appeared a rather fanciful claim to some but the remarkable success being enjoyed by Tipperary’s underage football teams over the last two years suggest that O’Brien was right to be optimistic.
The 2010 season saw Tipp annex Munster U15, U16 and U21 provincial football titles, while the U17 Darrel Darcy memorial tournament was also won.
In the same year, Clonmel High School were crowned All-Ireland senior B football champions and this year, Tipperary have been crowned Munster U14 and minor football champions.
O’Brien stood in the Tipperary dressing room at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, before the minor football decider with Cork and listened to one player speaking about how he had never tasted defeat in a blue and gold jersey.
It’s a mindset that’s permeating through every grade and senior football manager John Evans, a Kerry native, has noted that the Kingdom are calling in some big hitters to take charge of their underage teams.
That’s an indirect compliment to Tipperary’s progress as the Premier County defeated Kerry in the 2010 Munster U21 final, while also pulling off a remarkable victory against the same county in this year’s minor semi-final, coming from eleven points down to win by one.
O’Brien said: “Lots of good work has been done in football in Tipp down through the years and it’s coming to fruition now.
“There’s more of an interest in football in the county within the last couple of years. Take nothing away from what’s been done for the previous twenty or 30 years but with the introduction of development squads, we’re finding the players, keeping them and getting them playing to a particular level. They’re not afraid of anyone when they go out now and that’s important.”
O’Brien added: “As far as I was concerned, winning a second provincial title in two years was as big as anything we’ve ever won in hurling. Before the minor final, the players were very confident, sure they had their preparation done, sure of their ability and skill.
“And they were sure they were going to win it and went out and played accordingly.
“When we were beaten by Laois in the senior qualifier, a fella said to me that my 2020 plan would want to go to 2030. I approached him after the minor game and told him that 2020 is still online. If you don’t have a vision, you have nothing. That’s what we’ll aim for that’s what we’ll get.”
Central to what Evans describes as Tipp’s “meteoric” footballing rise in recent years is the relationship fostered between himself and minor team manager David Power, who is just 28 years of age.
Evans was appointed as senior manager in October 2007 and, to quote the famous Robert Frost poem, he decided to venture down the road less travelled in an attempt to develop a plan which will bear fruit in future senior teams.
Evans reflected: “Number one, you have to identify that there’s a source there and there is a magnificent source. At u14, u15 and u16, you have to bring up the standard of football and get the right people over the teams.”
Evans reckons that it was two and a half years ago when he sat down with Power in the Minella Hotel in Clonmel and put a template in place.
Tipp’s style of play, with a heavy emphasis on getting players behind the ball and breaking at speed, has proven successful and the manner of the minor team’s victory over Cork in the Munster final caught the attention of local Kerry onlookers.
Evans explains: “It was a matter of implementing the plan then and putting in the right personnel and young fellas.
“A few little things had to be cut out but once you get the right players in and they see that the right people are looking after them, not just selected on where a guy is from or what club he hails from, then you can move forward.
“The next thing is to get the best coaches in charge of that and that’s where I come in. I brought all the coaches in for a seminar, a day of theory and practical.
“I’ve been to places like Templemore and Toomevara and it taught me a lesson. There are good young lads, very athletic that can play all different types of sport, in particular football and hurling. It really opened my eyes to the amount of talent that’s in the county.
“Talent has always been there, harnessing it has been the 64,000 dollar question.
“There are managers and secretaries in other counties commenting upon the work we’ve been doing. And the fact that we’ve won two provincial titles (minor and U21) has spurred Kerry into action. They now have serious hitters in charge of their underage teams – Darragh O’Sé and Eamon Fitzmaurice with the U21s and Mickey Ned O’Sullivan and John O’Keeffe with the minors.
“They do recognise that the likes of Tipp have moved on and are a step ahead. You look at Brian Cuthbert in Cork – they were in an All-Ireland minor final last year and their minors were hotly tipped to go far again.
“I’ve coached teams to win county championships in Kerry with a very potent game. Everybody watching the Munster minor final knew that not only was it a good win, but the style of football was absolutely fantastic.
“It has been a successful brand for years in Kerry but you have nothing without good material. People are saying we’re lucky that we have such talent but I’m a firm believer that we had talent before and will have again. The trick is now that we’ve identified a method and put that template in place.”