Sweeney hoping Tipp footballers can seize their moment
By John Harrington
It has long been said of the current generation of Tipperary footballers that they’re good enough to beat anyone ‘on their day’.
That statement is something of a back-handed compliment because is suggests that while this Tipperary team might have talent, you can’t always trust them to deliver on it.
It’s an accusation that team captain, Conor Sweeney, doesn’t try to swerve. After all, as he admits himself, there’s recent evidence to back it up.
They showed plenty of character as well as ability to defeat Limerick in the Munster semi-final, but they had to do it the hard way after a tepid first-half performance that saw them trail by seven points at the break.
Sweeney knows such inconsistency will be fatal against Cork in this weekend’s Munster SFC Final.
Come Sunday, Tipperary need to be ‘on their day’.
“We need to do the opposite of what we did for the first half against Limerick,” says Sweeney.
“We were very slow, very lethargic, everything was lateral.
“We need to do the exact opposite. We need to get on the front foot and play with pace. Move the ball forward as quickly as we can.
“When we move it forward and play with pace we're a different team. But when we slow things down we just look so ordinary it's not even funny. We'll be looking for a fast start for sure.
“I think when we just under-perform ourselves, we can’t seem to get out of the hole that we dig for ourselves.
“So, we need to take ownership. When we start games we’re a different team, so that will definitely be something we’ll be looking to do on Sunday, to start well. Because if we don’t, we could be in bother.”
“In terms of Cork, they were very impressive around the middle third I thought (against Kerry). They knew what they wanted to do from their own kick-out. They put it long and they got red jersies around the break around the middle. They just wanted to win the break more than Kerry last week.
“So if we're going to have any joy in two weeks’ time we're going to have to win the middle third and be prepared to win that ball on the deck.”
Tipperary might be underdogs going into this Munster Final, but you better believe that Sweeney and his team-mates think they are plenty good enough to win this match.
Had Kerry been the opposition then it might have been a little more difficult to convince themselves that, but they hold no fear whatsoever of this Cork team having consistently performed well against them in League and Championship in recent years.
“No matter who won (between Cork and Kerry) it was always going to be a tough battle for us,” says Sweeney.
“We were probably always going to be underdogs which is fine, we're okay with that.
“We've played each other most years be it League or Championship. And bar one when they beat us by seven or eight points a couple of years ago in the Championship in Thurles, it's been a point either way.
“I think we're fairly evenly matched, to be quite honest, so it should prove for a good game. A close one anyway, hopefully.
“I just think the fact we've been playing Cork more regularly, we've been in the same league divisions as them in recent years so I think you'd take a little bit of confidence from that knowing we can compete with them.
“We're going to have to be at our best, there's no doubt about it, and an under-par performance like the first 35 minutes the last day just won't do. That's the bottom line. That happens us too much.
“We tend to underperform for periods of matches and we're going to get caught out at some stage. If we're to compete with Cork we're going to have to be on it from the word go and nothing less than a great performance will do.”
Tipperary bring considerable momentum into Sunday’s Munster Final.
Not only have they beaten Clare and Limerick already in the provincial championship, they finished their league campaign on a high too by retaining their Division 3 status courtesy of wins over Offaly and Leitrim.
New manager David Power knows many of these Tipperary players really well having managed some of them to the 2011 All-Ireland SFC title and many others at U-21 and U-20 level, and so far he seems to know what buttons to press to get the best from them.
“I don’t know if they’re doing anything overly different, I just think a new voice is great,” says Sweeney.
“I know we hear that a lot, but we’re after getting a good kick this year.
“A new voice is always good. He brought in a new backroom team with him. Some very experienced guys there, and a great variation in the coaches, I must say, so we’re lucky we’ve got some good coaches with Dave.
“I was going through it in my head the other day: every time Tipperary has got a new manager, we’ve always seemed to get a kick. When Evans came in, we got a kick. When Peter Creedon came in, he drove us on another bit.
“And obviously when Liam (Kearns) came in then in 2015-2016, we got an awful kick. So, I think we’re just getting another kick from Dave again this year. But, like, every time a manager comes in, he just brings that freshness to the group.
“The drills are good, the coaches are good. Paddy Christie has come in as a coach, we’ve got some good coaches as well in Charlie (McGeever) and Joe Hayes, so the training is good, it’s really enjoyable.
“I think that’s the one thing I’ve taken since Davy came in, the training has been really enjoyable and lads are probably getting the most out of themselves.”
Hurling is always going to be the number one sport in Tipperary, but Gaelic Football has made great strides to capture the public’s imagination in recent years thanks to the considerable efforts of Sweeney’s generation of players.
The 2016 All-Ireland semi-final was the obvious high-water mark, but winning a first Munster title since 1935 would submerge it and give Gaelic Football a greater buoyancy in the county than it has ever had in the modern era.
“As a footballer and a guy that's been around a long time, I think it's important that we're successful,” says Sweeney.
“It's important that young guys in the county want to play for us. Whether that's doing a bit of coaching at club level or getting involved with underage, I think it's important that we're seen and doing well.
“Surviving in Division 3 was as important as any Munster final not just for this group but for football in the county.
“Young players coming up, they need to see us playing in top divisions, they need to see us playing against good teams, they need to see us playing on the television, they need to see us winning and enjoying it they need to see us playing on the television, they need to see us wining and enjoying it, and I think if we can bring that to the fore this year and over the next couple of years, I think football will be in a good place because we have to compete with the hurlers.
“That is the bottom line. That is the way it is and that is the way it will be. If we all do our little bit as can all keep Tipperary in a good place because we have made great strides over the years. We have won titles at minor and under-21, it is time to deliver for senior and now is as good a time as any.
“It is fantastic for young lads to see us involved in a Munster final and hopefully it won’t be the last for the next few years.”
Sweeney doesn’t need to be told just how big an opportunity this Munster Final is for the Tipperary footballers.
This his 11th championship season and only second opportunity to play in a Munster Final.
He knows there’s no guarantee he will get the chance to do so again, and you can tell by his demeanour that he’s determined to seize the day.
“I certainly would have liked to have competed in more, that's for sure,” says Sweeney.
“I think it's one of every player's main goals, to get to your provincial final. It just hasn't happened. ‘16 was my first one, this is only my second one, and I’m around a long time.
“I just really hope we can give a good account of ourselves this time around; I think we under-performed majorly the last time which was very disappointing.
“But it’s always been a goal of mine to win a Munster championship, and hopefully I can make that happen this time around.
I just think on any given day anything can happen and especially this year with straight knock-out you have to believe you are going to win these games.
“I don’t think Cork would have taken to the field against Kerry believing they had no chance, they believed they could win and we are no different.
“We approach the Munster final believing we have a chance and it might only be a small chance but if we are to compete with them we are going to have to be at the top of our game.
“There is no room for error, there is no room to be off form or not tuned into what you are doing. It is down to ourselves now, we have to go and grasp it.”