The Tipperary footballers head into this Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo with a glint in their eyes and the quiet confidence of a group of men who have already crested a mountain. Now at the peak, all that is left to do is enjoy the view.
Liam Kearns may say that he would have advised you to "lie down in a dark room for a while" if you had suggested six months ago that this Tipp squad would be playing late August football. But don't be fooled. Amidst the sea of compliments flowing their way, those who really believed and invested in Tipp football over the years can smile to themselves and enjoy the silence of their own conviction. Which was, for a long time, all they had.
Between 1935, when Tipperary last won a Munster title, and 2005, when Tony Browne lifted the Tommy Murphy Cup at Croke Park, the county's footballers failed to bring home a title at senior 'A' inter-county level, bar three McGrath Cups. This was in contrast with the footballing pedigree the county possessed at the start of the twentieth century. From 1888 until 1935, the Tipperary hurlers only brought home six more Munster titles than the county's footballers and claimed ten All-Irelands to the footballers' four-not as great a disparity as one might assume.
An extract from the 'Clonmel Nationalist' newspaper featured in Michael Foley's excellent book 'The Bloodied Field' gives an impression of the strength of the county's footballers around that time (1920, to be precise):
There is sure to be an enormous attendance in Croke Park, Dublin, on Sunday next when Tipperary and Dublin football teams meet in a great challenge encounter...it is looked upon as a virtual All-Ireland final as Dublin have qualified for same and Tipperary are firm favourites for the Munster championship.
After that Munster win in '35, Tipp football was consigned for half a century to that strange existence common to so many hurling mad counties: a sort of purgatorial irrelevance. In those bleak years, Tipperary football was probably best known for the fact that it produced one of the most eccentric sports commentators the world has ever seen.
This was before, in 2008, former Tipp county chairman Barry O'Brien looked the men who cared about Tipp football in the eye and told them that they would see Tipp footballers in an All-Ireland final by 2020. Before the Under-21's won Munster in 2010, before the Minors won the All-Ireland a year later. And it was the time when a group of men came forward and invested themselves in laying down groundwork for the development of football in the county.
When O'Brien made that bold statement, it was after a year in which the county had been dumped out of the Munster championship by Limerick by 3 points and hammered in the first round of the qualifiers by Westmeath. Some would call that belief; others might call it insanity. Either way, he had a vision for the future of the county that few would have matched.
After they beat Cork in the Munster semi-final this year Tipp PRO Joe Bracken spoke about the nurturing of talent from Under-14 level and the spread of football across the county so that it was no longer just "pocketed in south Tipperary", and so that more players who were "not alone just good in hurling, good at football as well" committed to the large ball code over the "blue riband" sport of hurling. And Bracken pointed to the success of the "conveyer belt" at Clonmel Commercials-club of star forward Michael Quinlivan-as another key factor in the county's footballing progression. Their Munster Club Championship win in 2015, Quinlivan bagging a last minute goal, will lead to "other clubs coming through"-a sentiment Quinlivan echoed this week:
It probably shows there's a lot of teams in Tipperary saying we're not that far ahead of them and (who will) look where we're at. It gives confidence to nearly every other team in the county too.
One of the memorable images from their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Galway was the streams of Tipperary supporters making their way from various corners of Croke Park over to celebrate with the team at full-time. Liam Kearns has expressed hope that these streams will become floods in the coming days; that it won't just be the fans that the players "know by name" who will travel to support them against Mayo on Sunday. Kearns is expressing that sentiment on the week of a huge game against Mayo and after an incredibly successful year. Bracken conveyed similar words earlier in the summer, and his belief perhaps encapsulated the mindset that has enabled the footballing men of Tipperary to put their shoulders to the wheel, year after year, forever chasing that green light at the end of the dock. His words proved almost prophetic.
Success breeds success. The popularity will rise, (the players) will have the opportunity to show their talent. Last year (there was) a wave of expectation coming off the Under 21's getting to the All-Ireland final.
Much talk in the aftermath of Tipp's victory was of the men who weren't there; men who, for a catalogue of reasons, didn't have representing the Tipperary footballers as their priority this summer. Colin O'Riordan is trying to make it in Australian Rules. Steven O'Brien and Seamus Kennedy committed to the hurlers. Liam Casey, Jason Lonergan and Kevin Fahey headed off to the States. Quinlivan spoke to 'Off The Ball' after the Galway game of how he was "disappointed" for the absentees, but that there was no lingering bitterness towards them amongst the squad.
These are some of our best friends. This sort of stuff was never going to get in the way of that. Seamus has been one of my best friends the whole way up. We've played together since we were five or six years old. I've been playing with Steven and Colin since I was fifteen or sixteen as well. It was a massive decision for them to give something else a try-and I would never hold that against someone. It's just the way it worked out.
After they historically overcame the Rebels, Bracken had called it "disingenuous" to focus on who the Tipp squad were missing. That those who stayed were "the lads that need to be spoken about". That those who stayed would go down to the Fitzgerald Stadium to take on Kerry in the Munster final "to win".
Declan Browne was the name that rolled off the tongue of GAA supporters when they were asked about Tipperary football before the time of Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney. Browne won two Allstar awards at a time when that statistic told you both how outrageously good he was (to win them at all), and how weak Tipperary were (that he didn't win more). Browne's description of how they eked out a place in the Munster final perhaps says a lot about the difference between crops past and present:
We have seen it before and Tipp have been on the wrong end of it too often. The growing panic that spreads. It’s so hard to put a finger on how those momentum shifts work. One minute you’re flying, then when a team gets on top of you, you suddenly look so sluggish.
A few of these players have suffered injuries lately, so understandably some tanks emptied a little early and, when the pressure came on, they buckled.
But they didn’t break.
But possibly the most telling summation of just why this young, talented group of players have achieved such dizzying heights, the biggest insight into their winning mindset, comes from Bracken. Speaking on the subject of "moral victories", so often the sole crumb of comfort for Tipperary footballing sides throughout the years, Bracken stated that they're "no good to them any more."
The same goes for this Sunday. The Tipp footballers may be out of the long grass. But their instincts remain; no less sharp, no less fuelled by the hunger that burns within them.
Driving them on.