A journey that started in the humble surrounds of Kilmallock last April and has travelled to Semple Stadium; Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney and O’Moore Park, Portlaoise along the way, continues this Sunday for Tipperary’s Minor Footballers on the biggest stage of them all, Croke Park.
Tipp take on Roscommon in the first of the All-Ireland Semi-Finals (1.30) in what will be the curtain-raiser to the Senior Semi-final between Kerry and Mayo. The Premier County, whose visits to Croke Park on football championships days are a rarity, will be hoping that history repeats itself – the last time they met Roscommon at this stage of the championship was in 1984, when they beat the Connacht champions to reach the Centenary Year Final.
This year’s Munster champions will need to win their fifth successive match in this competition if they are to at least equal the achievement of the class of ‘84.
Few could have predicted when they beat Limerick on April 13, a few weeks after the clocks went forward, that they would be still involved in the championship when the nights are closing in.
That they are still going strong in late August is a tribute to a team that has steadily improved throughout the campaign and proven its undoubted ability with victories over the U-18 representatives of football strongholds such as Kerry, Cork and Meath.
Under the guidance of manager David Power, his selectors and backroom team, which includes Senior and U-21 coach John Evans, their exploits throughout the season have been a tonic for Tipperary football.
They were good value for their 1-13 to 0-9 first round defeat of Limerick on a night when Rockwell Rovers’ TJ Ryan and Clonmel Commercials’ Michael Quinlivan did most of the damage.
But it was their next game that really made people sit up and take notice. When they were 11 points behind Kerry on two occasions in the first half of the Munster semi-final in Thurles, and 10 points behind at half time, they seemed to be on their way out of the championship and another defeat loomed on the horizon for Tipperary football.
However a second half revival secured a sensational 2-12 to 3-8 victory. Goals from Michael Quinlivan and Colman Kennedy (Commercials) sent the comeback into overdrive and when captain Liam McGrath (Loughmore/Castleiney) broke through two challenges before curling a superb effort between the posts in additional time their joy was complete.
That famous victory would have been worth little if they didn’t go all the way in the province and they duly obliged in the final against Cork in Killarney. This time the margin was much more convincing, an 8-points victory helping to secure the county’s 6th Munster title and their first since 1995.
Two second-half goals proved crucial. The first was scored by Killenaule’s Greg Henry, who was prominent throughout, and then a penalty converted by Michael Quinlivan 9 minutes from the end of normal time moved them into the comfort zone with a 7-points lead.
From there it was onto Meath in the All-Ireland quarter-final on the August Bank Holiday. It was a measure of the reputation the team had built for itself that they entered the game as favourites. They duly justified that favouritism with a hard-fought 4 points win (0-11 to 0-7).
On the day they had solid performances from Philip Quirke of Moyle Rovers, centre back Dylan Fitzelle (Cashel King Cormacs), Colin O’Riordan of JK Brackens, full-back John Meagher (Loughmore/Castleiney), Ballina’s Stephen O’Brien and Kilsheelan’s Bill Maher.
Another highly influential figure throughout the campaign has been Commercials’ Ian Fahey, whose grand-uncle, Liam Boland (also Commercials), was captain of the 1955 Tipp minor team who won the Munster Championship. They beat Kerry by a point (0-9 to 1-5) in the replayed final in Thurles, after they had drawn the first match in Killarney.
They advanced to beat Mayo in the All-Ireland semi- final in Limerick before losing to Dublin in the All-Ireland Final by 5-4 to 2-7.
Roscommon, meanwhile, beat Galway in the Connacht Final by 1-9 to 0-6, having seen off Mayo and New York in the earlier rounds.
They’ll have the edge on Tipp in terms of the Croke Park experience, having played there twice. They had a first taste of Croke Park when they beat New York on the same day that Roscommon lost to Longford in the National League Division Four Final and returned for the All-Ireland quarter-final when they pipped Armagh by a point, 1-16 to 0-18, after extra time.
The team is captained by centre back John McManus, a son of former All Star Tony McManus.
Their top scorer is Donie Smith, who scored the goal against Armagh. He’s joined in attack by his brother Enda while Fintan Sweeney and Kevin Finn, who scored 5 points between them when they came on as substitutes in the quarter-final, will be pushing for a place in the starting fifteen.
Roscommon also have a strong midfield in Thomas Corcoran and Fintan Kelly. Corcoran kicked a free from 45 metres that proved the winning point against Armagh, having converted an earlier free from the same distance, a score that forced extra time.
The team is managed by Ross Shannon, who was also part of the management team when Roscommon won the Connacht and All-Ireland titles in 2006.
The referee on Sunday is Damien Brazil from Offaly. The match will be shown live on RTE 2 and if necessary extra time will be played.
Tipp have won just one All-Ireland Minor title, in 1934. They’re regarded as the 9/1 outsiders to bridge that 77-year gap while Sunday’s opponents Roscommon are 6/1.
Dublin are the 10/3-on favourites to win their first All-Ireland Minor crown since 1984 while Galway are 13/2.
The second semi-final between Dublin and Galway is on the following Sunday, 28 August, as the curtain-raiser to the Senior semi-final between Dublin and Donegal.