When Cork's Paul Kerrigan slotted the equalizing point in the 70th minute of an epic Munster semi-final clash with Tipperary, a resigned groan emanated from the Premier County's small collection of devotees. They had seen it before, this heartbreak - against Tyrone in the All-Ireland Under-21 final in 2015 and when Aidan Walsh's late flurry of scores snatched victory away from them in another Munster semi-final in 2014. But something was different this time. As Tipp's former Allstar footballer Declan Browne wrote in the aftermath, his county were not prepared to let this one go.
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.
This win for Tipperary could mark an important milestone in the progression of the county's football side, the breakthrough that they have been waiting for at senior level to build on the underage successes of the last number of years. Such successes have provided a welcome relief for those involved in Premier County football, who suffered a significant barren spell at inter-county level. Between 1935, when Tipperary last won a Munster title, and 2005, when the aforementioned 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.
And yet, Tipperary started the twentieth century with a decent footballing pedigree.
A glance at the honours won by the Tipperary footballers throughout history illustrates a Munster title spread from 1888 til 1935 that is relatively consistent if not exactly prolific. An extract from the 'Clonmel Nationalist' paper 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.
Indeed within that 47-year period of 1888 to 1935 the hurlers only brought home six more Munster titles than the footballers and claimed ten All-Irelands to the footballers' four. Not as great a disparity as one might assume.
But thereafter the footballers retreated to dwell within the hurlers' shadow, and football was consigned for half a century to that strange existence common to so many hurling mad counties: a sort of purgatorial irrelevance. Football spent its time in the dreary wasteland, an ugly Gollum compared to the pure, quick, skilled sport of hurling.
In those intervening, bleak years, Tipperary football was probably best known for the fact that it produced one of the greatest, most eccentric sports commentators the world has ever seen.
Until now, perhaps.
Tipperary PRO Joe Bracken doesn't buy the notion that the Cork victory has come as a bolt from the blue. Bracken lists off a number of men - including current and previous minor managers Tommy Toomey, David Power and Charlie McKeever - who have spent years putting in the groundwork to get Tipperary to the stage where they can defeat the 2010 All-Ireland champions. Bracken tells Balls.ie that the "great belief" coaches have instilled in players from a young age has given them "the confidence" to close out results. Unlike in the past, "moral victories are no good to them anymore."
In order to achieve success at inter-county level (as we highlighted in a piece concerning the evolution of Cavan GAA) structures have to be put in place within the county. Set out. Planned. Bracken elucidates that Tipperary football is no different, having set out an ambitious benchmark under the stewardship of then-County Chairman Barry O'Brien in 2008:
Barry O'Brien put in place a vision for 2020 that they (Tipp) would contest an All-Ireland, if not win it.
It is worth casting the mind back to 2008 to appreciate just how bold a statement this was from O'Brien. It was before the great under-21 and minor successes of 2010 and 2011 and was in the December of 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. Bracken talks about the men "building the future for Tipp" who from under-14 level have "nurtured talent and brought it through" to the stage where football is no longer "pocketed in south Tipperary" but is becoming more popular across the county. These figures have convinced some of the many players who are "not alone just good in hurling (but) good at football as well" to commit to the large ball code over the "blue ribbon" of hurling, thus improving the standard and validity of football as a game alongside hurling.
Like the great St Gall's team that backboned Antrim's shock run to the Ulster final in 2009, Bracken points to a powerful Tipperary club at the core of his county's first Munster final appearance in fourteen years. Clonmel Commercials became the first club from Tipp ever to win the Munster Senior Club Championship last year when inter-county star Michael Quinlivan bagged a last minute goal against Nemo Rangers of Cork. Bracken is hopeful that the "conveyer belt" at Commercials will inspire the rest of the county's clubs to strengthen:
(Club football) wouldn’t be as strong as the hurling. Success can only help it. This is going to be superb (for clubs)...you’ll have other clubs coming through-this can only be a positive.
As well as the shining example of the Commercials, Bracken sees success for the county team as key to inspiring a new generation of Tipperary footballers.
About 12,000 last year turned up to see them against Tipperary... Success breeds success. The popularity will rise, they (players) will have the opportunity to show their talent. Last year a wave of expectation coming off the under 21s getting to the All-Ireland final (is why the crowds were so big).
Tipperary received praise in some quarters for their performance on Sunday without a number of key players. Seamus Kennedy (hurling) and Colin O'Riordan (Australian Rules) are two such losses from their 2015 campaign. But Bracken thinks that there is too much attention placed on their absence.
(Saying there are) nine players missing (is) being disingenuous to the guys that were there. They are the lads that need to be spoken about. (Talking about the absentees) builds into the public psyche.
As for the Munster final, and Tipp's hopes of ending their 81-year famine?
They will compete. They go down to win a Munster final.
Beware the Tipperary men, lying in wait in the long grass.