Nobody knows better than Tipp captain Eoin Kelly the impact a successful Tipperary team has on the collective psyche of young hurlers aspiring to reach the very top.
One of his earliest memories of the remarkable hurling journey he has undertaken is as an awestruck young boy in primary school when John Leahy visited his school with the Liam McCarthy Cup and he can remember the buzz and excitement that accompanied the successful Tipperary teams at that time.
From that moment Kelly can recall ‘straight away’ telling himself that he wanted to live that dream and he hopes the achievements of the current Tipperary team will spark ambition among hundreds of young people in the county to ensure a bountiful supply of hurling talent to wear the Blue & Gold.
The leading Tipperary scorer of all time said that for years Tipperary were in the doldrums, sporting achievements of other teams were in the ascendancy and the Munster or Irish rugby jersey and jerseys of other teams were the fashionable attire.
A Tipperary team going well, contesting All-Irelands, is what Tipperary people expect and he is proud to be part of a squad that is going to play in three consecutive All-Irelands for the first time since the early sixties.
“It is important that Tipperary is up there and getting to All-Irelands on a regular basis because that is what drives on future generations of hurlers,” he said.
A successful Tipperary team was fantastic for the players, the County Board, the supporters and everybody in the county.
“If your county is playing in All-Irelands it means that young people know the names of the players, they want to meet them and the great thing about the GAA is that you can meet and walk past those playing the games in the street,” he said.
“I remember John Leahy coming to the school and I told myself that I wanted to be on Tipperary teams winning Munster and All-Ireland titles and I hope it is the same for the young hurlers in Tipperary today,” he said.
For a period of nearly fifty years to go by since Tipperary last appeared in three finals in a row was too long, according to the Tipp leader.
“Tipperary supporters have not seen their county in three All-Irelands for an awful long time. It’s where the county should be and that drives us on as players and individuals you want to push on and you want to get to All-Ireland finals every year,” he said.
He was full of praise for the squad that had overcome different obstacles this year out on the pitch. They had shown a level of consistency which was what was needed to compete at the top on a regular basis.
The captain said they were fortunate to have so many leaders out on the field because this year had proven that the qualities of leadership were required all over the pitch in every match they had contested.
“We don’t just have one or two lads out there as leaders, we have twelve, thirteen, fourteen leaders out there and that is what got us through some very difficult matches this year,” he said.
Eoin said that the more experienced players on the squad were constantly drilling it home to the younger lads that they needed to make every opportunity count while there was a squad there capable of winning and contesting All-Irelands.
“Some of the older players have the experience of playing on Tipperary teams for years without every reaching a final. There is a tremendous drive among the young lads on the squad and we are all just focused on the next game, not next year or in three years time,” he said.
It was that type of focus, he said, that brought them through the test against Dublin on All-Ireland semi final day.
“The supporters were living in a kind of a bubble expecting an easy game and they were thinking already of the final. The players were certainly not thinking like that and I think everybody was very relieved to hear the final whistle that day,” he said.
“People had been looking at the Waterford game and already had us in the final. That day against Waterford was something of a freak. We could tell out on the field very early that for some strange reason Waterford did not turn up, they were five/six yards off us as forwards from the start, so we knew that you could not go on the result of that game,” said Eoin.
That game apart Eoin said that Tipperary had to deal with difficult situations in all their other games, Cork had a run on Tipperary in Semple Stadium, Clare had raced into a big lead and Dublin had employed an extra defender and brought a fierce intensity to the contest.
“We did not panic on any of those days, as players we dealt with it on the pitch and that tells you about the belief that is there within the squad which you need to have to achieve things,” he said.
Eoin said the Dublin match would stand to the players given the physical presence and intensity their opponents brought to the game.
“The big positive thing about the Dublin game was that we did not panic. We stayed calm and still put 1.19 on the board against the packed defence and the hunger Dublin had on the pitch. You just could not sense that hunger, you could feel it every time you took a hit, the intensity was at a big pitch and you could feel just how much they wanted it playing in their first All-Ireland semi final for I don’t know how long, back in the forties maybe,” he said.
If anything, he said, this year’s championship had taught them to expect that the next game they play could be totally different, it would bring different challenges and they had to be ready to cope with that out on the field if Tipperary and this squad were to bring more All-Irelands to the county.