The impossible dream for Tipperary footballers proved to be just that at Croke Park on Sunday last when they
finally exited the All-Ireland race after a magnificent 12-week championship journey which began as far back as last May in Dungarvan.
Defeated yes but unbowed, no; the first Tipperary senior team to reach an All-Ireland semi-final in 81 years magnificently gave of their all. They put a vastly more experienced Mayo side to the pin of their collars before their opponents advanced to meet Dublin or Kerry next month.
Pre-match expectations of a comfortable Mayo victory in which many predicted they would easily “put Tipp away” never materialised. Indeed for a period in the both halves Tipp looked the better side and led by double scores 0-6 to 0-3 after 25 minutes. But it was the 10-minute period before the break that ultimately decided this game. The Connacht side, playing in a sixth consecutive All-Ireland semi-final, clicked into top gear and outscored Tipp by 1-7 to 0-1, giving themselves a huge half-time advantage of six points, 1-10 to 0-7.
Some feared at the interval that things might turn sour for Liam Kearns’ novices in the second half and that Division 1 side Mayo might turn the screw and embarrass Tipperary by the full-time whistle. Not so. Not by a long shot. A superb opening to the second period saw Tipp back to within two points of their rivals within 12 minutes and a grandstand finish - and a first All-Ireland final in 96 years - was back on the cards.
The game remained in the proverbial melting pot until the 63rd minute when a somewhat fortuitous second goal for Mayo put them six clear and Tipp’s season came to a shuddering end.
But there was absolutely nothing lost in defeat on Sunday last. The country’s most-talked-about team of the year had once more put in a herculean effort. Four wins over Waterford, Cork, Derry and Galway had earned this side a deserved reputation as an exciting and attractive footballing force, and against one of the country’s top teams in Mayo they had once again endorsed the county’s growing reputation as a force in Gaelic football .
Following the final whistle the manager Liam Kearns, in his first year in charge, proudly led his troops from the hallowed turf to a huge and prolonged applause from the “Blue and Gold” army of supporters. It was an outpouring of both pride and appreciation by Tipp’s biggest following at a football game in many decades. It was fully deserved by a team who had soldiered manfully all year, despite the loss of some key players, and who on the day had suffered at the hands of cruel fate with black and red cards. They have restored the pride in Tipp football and we all hope there will be more days like this to come again.
The game had started brightly enough for Tipperary and despite a couple of early wides they led 0-2 to 0-1 after seven minutes.
Just when they were beginning to settle into the cauldron that is Croke Park on such big occasions, disaster struck. A threatening Mayo advance on goal was halted and Robbie Kiely was deemed by referee David Coldrick to have pulled down his opponent.
The black card for Tipperary centre-back and lynchpin Kiely was to prove a huge blow for the side. And while it initially appeared Tipp were coping, the Carbery Rangers player’s absence was very noticeable in the run-up to half-time when Mayo would tag on 1-7 to a single point for Tipp. It was a huge call by the referee and one could argue it wasn’t conclusive enough to merit such a punishment so early. But referees make such judgements in an instant - and they don’t always get them right.
Kiely’s replacement Shane Leahy was himself substituted before half-time, the Arravale Rovers man unfortunately having a rare bad day at the office and manager Kearns didn’t stand on ceremony. It was indicative of how much the black card had affected Tipp’s formation and game plan.
After Mayo had levelled from the resultant free given against Kiely, a Kevin O’Halloran point and another Quinlivan free edged Tipperary 0-4 to 0-2 ahead on the quarter-hour mark.
And it looked even better for Tipp when they extended the lead to three following Quinlivan’s third free and an excellent Conor Sweeney point after 24 minutes.
But then disaster struck. A move out of defence up the Hogan Stand side floundered with a wild hand pass from Colm O’Shaughnessy and Mayo countered via Keith Higgins for Jason Doherty to score the game’s first goal.
In the following 10 minutes Mayo went on a 0-7 to 0-1 scoring spree with all their top stars contributing - Diarmuid O’Connor, Kevin McLoughlin (nearly a goal), Andy Moran (3), Lee Keegan and Aidan O’Shea. Conor Sweeney had Tipp’s only reply. By half-time all six Mayo forwards were on the scoresheet. Tipp were saved by the bell it seemed when the referee’s whistle sounded.
At the break and 1-10 to 0-7 in arrears it looked ominous for Tipperary but they emerged for the second half re-focused. They outscored their opponents 0-5 to 0-1 in the opening 12 minutes, via four frees (one from O’Halloran and three from Quinlivan) plus a fine point four minutes in from Bill Maher.
It was game on once again as Tipp clawed their way back, unexpectedly (and to the great surprise of the Mayo following) into this All-Ireland semi-final.
The game hung delicately in the balance and went eight minutes without a score before Colm Boyle’s fine effort went high into Hill 16 .
And then followed another extended scoreless period as Mayo went about introducing their subs, which also would have a significant effect on the next and match-winning score.
Seven minutes from the end of normal time substitute Evan Regan, when setting up to shoot for a point slipped and his miscued ground ball found its way to fellow substitute Conor O’Shea. The third and youngest brother from Breaffy just got enough side leather on the ball to send it into the corner of the net past Evan Comerford. How fortunate for O’Shea to find himself unmarked behind a physically and mentally tiring defence. He didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and in raising a green flag put a final nail in the Tipp footballers 'coffin for 2016.
Things immediately went from bad to worse for Tipp with the straight red carding of Bill Maher for an off-the-ball incident that on replay looked harmless enough. On another day it wouldn’t merit even a yellow, but David Coldrick’s call left Tipp a man down with, as it turned out, 11 minutes still to play.
In fairness Tipperary kept plugging away despite all the odds and they certainly died with their boots on, outscoring Mayo by two points to one in the final minutes of the game.
At the death Mayo’s Diarmuid Vaughan received a black card and having used all of their six subs they too finished with 14 men.
There will be plenty to take from this game and from this year for Tipperary. Sunday’s performance didn’t match that of the previous outing against Galway but account has to be taken for a stronger opposition. In the circumstances, especially after the loss of Kiely, Tipp performed heroically and if Mayo’s form holds true next month, then Tipp can be well pleased with their progress overall this year.
But Tipperary left the field heroes to a man having displayed a never-say-die spirit throughout and bringing the game on in leaps this past year. Inexperience and more significantly a shallower panel of players compared to the bigger counties was exposed. All told it has been a great year. Take a bow all.
Evan Comerford (Kilsheelan-Kilcash), Colm O’Shaughnessy (Ardfinnan), Alan Campbell (Moyle Rovers), Ciarán McDonald (Aherlow), Bill Maher (Kilsheelan/Kilcash), Robbie Kiely (Carbery Rangers), Jimmy Feehan (Killenaule), Peter Acheson (Moyle Rovers, captain), George Hannigan (Shannon Rovers), Josh Keane (Golden/Kilfeacle), Michael Quinlivan (Clonmel Commercials), Brian Fox (Éire Óg Annacarty), Kevin O’Halloran (Portroe), Conor Sweeney (Ballyporeen), Philip Austin (Borrisokane).
Subs: Shane Leahy (Arravale Rovers) for Kiely (black card) (8); Alan Moloney (Rockwell Rovers) for Leahy (31); Shane O’Connell (Golden/Kilfeacle) for O’Shaughnessy (56); Ian Fahey (Clonmel Commercials) for O’Halloran (66).
Scorers for Tipperary: Michael Quinlivan 0-7 (0-7f), Conor Sweeney 0-3 (0-1f), Kevin O’Halloran 0-2 (0-1f), Bill Maher, Philip Austin 0-1 each.
David Clarke, Brendan Harrison, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan, Patrick Durcan, Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran, Diarmuid O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor,
Subs: Tom Parsons for Seamus O’Shea (52); Conor O’Shea for Doherty (58); Evan Regan for Moran (62); Chris Barrett (Belmullet) for Boyle (67); Alan Dillon (Ballintubber) for McLoughlin (68); Conor Loftus (Crossmolina) for Cillian O’Connor (71).
Scorers for Mayo: Andy Moran 0-4, Jason Doherty, Conor O’Shea 1-0 each, Cillian O’Connor 0-3 (0-3f), Diarmuid O’Connor 0-2, Aidan O’Shea, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Kevin McLoughlin 0-1 each.
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).