KILLINAN END - Liam Kearns left his mark on Tipp Football

Liam Kearns’ death has numbed the GAA community and reminded all once more of their mortality.

From a Tipperary perspective it recalls good days when everything seemed possible for our footballers and every day was a new adventure. Back in 2016 in Breffni Park was really the day it began for Tipp on a national scale but there was evidence of significant progress under Liam Kearns prior to that. Not since 1944 had Tipp beaten Cork in the Senior football championship. That win back in the day might now be regarded as significant as just a year later Cork bridged quite the gap themselves by winning a first All-Ireland football title since 1911. An even more significant landmark when you consider that it would be another 28 years before Billy Morgan walked up the Hogan Stand steps to collect the Sam Maguire.

While beating Cork was rare for Tipp it was hardly an outrageous prospect for Liam Kearns. Apart from his exploits in green and gold as a player he oversaw one of the most remarkable results of the decade when Limerick beat Cork footballers by a big margin in the 2003 Munster Championship. The context for this throws a different light on this achievement. For reasons not altogether clear Cork football has been in freefall for the last decade or more. When the Cork Senior team won the 2010 All-Ireland title and won several League titles they looked set to be a force for the foreseeable future but they quickly went off a cliff.

Back in 2003 it was a different situation. It would be folly to say that they enjoyed the ever-exalted status of their westerly neighbours, or even the grudging respect that might be allowed to Dublin given what they have achieved in recent decades. But rarely did Kerry take them for granted, nor could they afford to do so. In 2002, Kerry were close to an All-Ireland title before being overpowered by Armagh in a pulsating second-half performance. The memory of Pat Spillane at half-time wondering if Armagh’s tardiness in re-emerging for the second-half was a sign that they had gone home still lingers. Not a comment he would have made of Cork at the time. Though Kerry gave Cork a good going over in the All-Ireland semi-final they had drawn and lost to them in Munster.

This was the background of the team Limerick beat by ten points in the Munster Championship. It’s the kind of collapse Cork’s footballers could do at any moment now but not back then. A creditable performance against Kerry in the final in Killarney followed. Yet, a forewarned Kerry needed a replay to beat Limerick in the Munster Final a year later. When you consider that Tipp and Clare won Munster championships you would have to concede that Limerick were unlucky to not do so in some of those years. It is clear that Liam Kearns brought an organisation and belief to the team that almost made the breakthrough.

For Tipp, Breffni Park was a milestone. Not every day will Derry – All-Ireland champions in recent memory, and semi-finalists again last year – be taken down by a county like Tipp where football is very much in the shadow of the hurlers. But the real test of Tipp was to produce that level of performance again. Beating Galway in the quarter-final was done with a swagger and confidence that would be more associated with the county of Mattie MacDonagh and Frank Stockwell. On the occasion the pretty patterns were painted in Blue and Gold. Tipp has had many great football men over the years – perhaps it needed a Kerry man with that unequalled footballing DNA to create a belief system to eliminate Cork, Derry, and Galway in one championship?

Liam Kearns had a modest Kerry senior career playing a relatively small number of league matches. It is not unduly defending his honour to suggest that never was a football team harder to break into than the one he was faced with if he was to quarry out a senior career. He played in the half-forwards with Kerry minor team when they won the 1980 All-Ireland title. He played midfield betimes with Austin Stacks. He was looking at displacing maybe Pat Spillane or Jack O’Shea or Ger Power or Ógie Moran. Good luck with that.

In that 1980 minor campaign Kerry beat Derry and Meath in the All-Ireland series. Hard to believe it but Derry used a 14-year-old Dermot McNicholl as a substitute in that final. The Meath team in the semi-final included Liam Hayes and Colm Coyle. But Kerry had Liam Kearns, Tom Spillane, and Ambrose O’Donovan who raised the Sam Maguire in Centenary Year. It might be a footnote at this stage but maybe Kerry’s toughest match of that campaign came in Clonmel against a Tipp team which included Nicky English and Ian Conroy who won minor hurling All-Irelands that same year. Kerry won 4-8 to 3-9. The difference between the teams? Liam Kearns scored 3-1 for the Kingdom. Little did he realise at that time the role he would play with the Blue and Gold in the future. What a shame we will see his impact no more.