By Brian McDonnell
SENIOR manager John Evans is desperately hoping that his Tipperary team can beat Laois this weekend and graduate to the next level in their development as a footballing force - on Saturday (7pm) Tipperary travel to O’Moore Park in Portlaoise to take on the home side in the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Since Evans took responsibility for the side in October 2008 Tipperary have improved slowly, but surely under the tutelage of the Kerry man.
Although the Premier have failed to win a provincial game for the past four years Evans’ men have been competitive and beat Laois (0-13 to 0-12) in last year’s qualifier at Semple Stadium.
Laois, who beat Longford (0-10 to 0-9) but lost to Dublin (0-11 to 1-16) in this year’s Leinster championship, will be ready for Tipperary on Saturday. They will not take the Premier for granted and Evans is hoping that his players will embrace this particular challenge.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent’s and Kilruane’s Damian Lawlor in 2009 John Evans suggested that there was “no harm in dreaming”. Now however Evans is hoping his charges can make their dreams a reality.
“Let me tell you. We went out this year in the league and we played against Wexford,” John Evans told the Tipperary Star.
“They came to us and they were going for promotion and the frame of mind that was in Tipperary was that ‘hey look we’ve always beaten Wexford, we can beat Wexford’ and out we went and we beat Wexford.
“With any young player you have you can develop him physically, you can improve his skill level and there’s absolutely no doubt about that. You can improve his teamwork, his contribution and his own self-discipline, but the main thing, and it takes a bit of time to develop, is the mind-set. It’s a mind-set of winning and not having that subservient feeling and having that belief that you are going to win; that you are better than anyone else. Funnily enough that’s a trait in Tipperary hurling. So, it’s not that distant away from the footballers as such in the county, albeit in a different code.”
Tipperary suffered a reasonably heavy defeat at the hands of Kerry at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney in the provincial championship, butJohn Evans reports that the mood in the camp is buoyant: “all the year you are geared for one of the top two teams in Ireland, in Cork and Kerry we’ll say, and you’re expected to go out and give it your best shot. That has been quite difficult and then you’re in the qualifiers and you’re expecting to get an opponent you could describe as more lenient.
“We’ve got Laois so the mood is quite good and there’s a good air of expectancy in the camp. We are probably underdogs again, but not by as much going in against Laois this time.”
When the sides encountered one another last summer Tipperary, featuring a fantastic display from George Hannigan, chiselled out a hard-fought one-point win thanks in no small part to Brian Mulvihill who was sprung from the bench and duly kicked the game-winning score in a barn-storming finish.
Before beating Laois on that occasion Tipperary had won just two qualifiers since the scheme was introduced in 2001. The win over Laois is regarded as Tipp’s most notable championship success in years and there is no doubt that Laois will be ready for the Premier on Saturday.
“You’re hitting the nail on the head there,” John Evans added.
“No matter what one says or does Laois are going to be ready for us now and, look, I suppose revenge is on the menu and revenge, I suppose, is best served cold 12 months later in your own back garden.”
Despite losing to Dublin in the Leinster championship Laois have enjoyed a good year having earned promotion to Division One of the league even though they lost the league final to Donegal.
There is no doubt that Laois will present Tipp with a formidable challenge and even though John Evans must plan without several players, most notably the injured Brian Jones (shoulder), the Killorglin native insists that his players are looking forward to the game.
“The mood in the camp is great,” manager John Evans said.
“Guys are enthusiastic about it and guys are looking for a chance to play. Even though there’s three or four guys gone to America it’s giving other fellas a chance to come in and show their wares. It isn’t ideal when fellas go away certainly, but there is one thing for sure: other guys are looking at it as one door closes and another door of opportunity opens.”
John Evans, who is currently in the first year of a second three-season stint, guided Tipp to successive promotions in 2008 and 2009, bringing them from Division Four to Division Two and winning the Division Three title in 2009. In 2010 Evans also led Tipp to an historic first Munste under-21 title thanks to a sensational 1-7 to 1-6 win over Kerry.
“We are a hundred thousand miles away from where we were four years ago,” John Evans explained.
“The skills of the game have improved enormously. We’re certainly not the finished article by any means, but guys like Ciarán McDonald, Andrew Morrissey, George Hannigan, Brian Fox, Brian Mulvihill, Barry Grogan and Seámus Grogan have improved their skill level enormously. Now, we have to move up to the next level.”