KILLINAN END - Scars of the famine years still haunt Tipp

The annual jubilee teams on All-Ireland day always raise an eyebrow as they cast the passage of time into stark relief. When the time-lapse stretches to half a century it becomes a true eye-opener.

On the day Martin Storey raised the MacCarthy Cup back in 1996 the jubilee team was a landmark Tipperary outfit. It was by any standards a decent and hard won All-Ireland with the All-Ireland champions of the next four years in the shape of Limerick and Kilkenny being among the vanquished en route. It was also unique among Tipperary’s All-Ireland final appearances in that the game was part of the experiment which saw provincial and All-Ireland finals played over 80 minutes.

This quickly showed in scorelines. In 1967 Tipp scored 4-12 in winning the Munster Final by double-scores; a year later 2-13 did the trick by nine points. By 1971 it took 4-16 to edge past Limerick by a point in the Killarney rain.

That 1971 decider was also the last one where a Tipperary goalkeeper wore the same jersey as his team-mates. This change came about in 1975 when Séamus Shinners of Newport was the first Tipp goalkeeper to don an alternative championship jersey. One can’t imagine it’s a distinction which has given him much pause for thought down the years but like all goalkeepers he will have appreciated the relative protection symbolised by the new jersey. Suddenly it singled the goalkeeper out as an endangered species. The ‘no prisoners’ style of full-back was a necessary function of a different set of rules.

The other aspect of Tipp’s 1971 success is its splendid isolation. It was the one high-water mark in an extraordinary period of struggle between the success of 1965 and the renaissance of 1989. A journalist recently commented that the ‘Old Firm’ soccer clubs in Glasgow, Celtic and Rangers, were only ever three defeats away from a crisis. There is often that sense about New Zealand rugby too where defeat or successive defeats always raises the concern locally that the house of cards is about to fall, and things will never be quite the same again.

There is always a sense too that Tipperary has been scarred by the post-1971 experience and that ‘crisis’ is never far away. Maybe supporters are haunted by the need to make hay while the sun shines and it is almost impossible to avoid the shadow of perceived underachievement with any team. Most of all for a certain generation there might be an abiding fear of sliding into irrelevance, for in a sense that aspect was the low point for Tipp during the decade after the ’71 triumph. What might have looked a victory to herald a new era turned out in fact to be the last cry of the old era. The championship malaise was paralleled by drift in the National League.

If the county won just a single All-Ireland between 1965 and ’89, it had the same return from the League campaigns between 1968 and ’88. If we accept under-age as a reliable sign of future returns then strong signs were there in 1971. A county used to feasting in the Minor ranks during the 1950s drew a blank during the following decade. Time moves quickly and this catches up as it surely did with Tipp. The existential crisis that Cork have endured in recent years has a similar correlation in underage struggles. They too could be mindful that it took Tipp a long time to turn underage sprouts into Senior bloom.

Kilkenny too might look back in time at 2015 as their ‘1971’ especially if underage performance in an indicator. Back in the 2000s when Kilkenny were beating all around them at senior level it was accompanied by several under-21 titles when arguably they hardly needed to produce a surplus of winning hurlers. The opposite is the case now and this is also a county which can go into crisis mode as merely competing is not enough. Too much self-validation is tied up in success for it to be otherwise. But uncertainty will prevail while the tenure of Brian Cody is up for discussion and any failure is likely to be attributed to that while it lasts.

Tipperary face a challenge in appointing a manager who has the necessary credibility and ambition. The ambition relates to the need to show that they are not simply a stop-gap and can take the team forward. There are those who would question Cork’s prospects under current management despite the apparent improvement this year. Many will remember surges of promise in Tipperary during the lean years too. Sometimes the last little part of the climb can be the most treacherous. It would be surprising at this point if Cork don’t match our gap years of 1971-89 and it is a fate which is not beyond anyone.