By Noel Dundon
Tipperary hurling Manager Declan faces his biggest challenge yet on the sidelines when he squares up to one of the most successful men of all time in the opposing dugout. But, the Clonoulty Rossmore man, who won All-Ireland medals as a player in three different decades, is not fazed by the prospects and is typically cool in the lead in to Sunday’s clash with Kilkenny.
Fresh from having watched his sister Noirin represent the Premier County with great distinction in The Rose of Tralee Festival, Declan had a grilling of his own to face in the Horse and Jockey Inn when he addressed the GAA sportswriters queries on preparations for the final, his thoughts about Kilkenny and a host of other subjects.
And, he had no hesitation in saying he didn’t mind if Tipperary won a dead loss All-Ireland fInal. “We don’t mind in Tipp if it’s another classic or not, we haven’t had much success in Tipp in the last 40 years on All-Ireland Final Day, so regardless of whether it’s a classic or not the bottom line is that you’re looking for a result. The number one priority,” he says with typical honesty.
Stressing the importance of all Tipperary folk, including the players and management, enjoying the big occasion, Declan feels that his charges have prepared as best as possible for the clash with Brian Cody’s men and they are looking forward to the challenge of retaining their title.
“We’re lucky that we have quality men available in Tipp at the minute. There are plenty of leaders in the group and we just have to guide them along and let them off. Hopefully they’ll play as well as they can on the day, and win or lose after that. You know that if you do your best you have some satisfaction out of that,” he says.
Never a man to shirk a challenge on the field of player, Declan answered the call last Autumn when Liam Sheedy and his management team bowed out having delivered the MacCarthy Cup. In Tipp, the only measure of success is All-Ireland titles and let’s face it, Declan, Tommy Dunne and Michael Gleeson, can only equal the achievement of 2010. Anything less would be a step backwards. So, did he feel the poison chalice syndrome when offered the job?
“It was a huge challenge and a huge honour to take over as manager of the Tipp team. The fact that Tipp won the All-Ireland last year brings its own extra dimension. You never know if you’re going to be asked to take on the Tipp job again, so from the management point of view, we knew the quality of young men that were coming through in Tipp, having been involved with a lot of them as minors, and having played with some of the older guys as well, we knew the quality of men that were available and that made the decision a little bit easier.
“Now that we’re back in the final, we’re looking for everybody to play to their best on the day and hopefully that will be good enough.
“It might have been intimidating to take over as Manager of the All-Ireland champions, but at the end of the day we’re all hurling men. We love playing the game and we love being involved at whatever level we’re involved with, so we’ve some very successful men in our backroom team as well. The responsibility is shared equally among the backroom team so it makes all those things a little bit easier. Every member of the backroom team has their own duties to carry out and they’re doing those duties to the best of their ability. While one man might have the name of Manager, the Manager is only part of the backroom team. If everyone is doing their own job then the Manager can oversee the lot.
“It hasn’t been easy, managing a group of successful men like we have in Tipp. We held onto a lot of the backroom team and that made the transition that little bit easier. Having played with some of the older guys and having managed a lot of the younger players at Minor level -all those things made the job a little bit easier and the transition more seamless.
“There’s a big time commitment involved in the job, I’m lucky enough that I haven’t too far to travel to training most evenings, I’m in training in less than a half an hour but the time is the big drawback,” he says.
So, did Declan’s success with the minors give him the thirst for taking on the senior job or was it always there?
“It was a factor in us taking on the job initially, the fact that we knew the guys who had come through from Minor level. Any hurling man wants to be in Croke Park on the first Sunday of September, regardless of what county you’re from, so from that point of view all those things went into the mix when we were considering taking on the job.”
While Tipperary folk might have been expecting an easy ride in the Capital against Anthony Daly’s Dublin, Declan and his men were realistic enough to know that this would not be the case. And, it came as no surprise that the game was a tough, uncompromising, brutally physical encounter, with no quarters asked or given. It was, the perfect preparation for the All-Ireland and gave Tipp much food for thought.
“We were expecting a very tough game against Dublin - we hadn’t beaten them in the two previous competitive outings. We knew they were going to bring a huge challenge, the same as Kilkenny will bring the next day, and we were delighted to get through that semi-final, and it’s great to be back in the final.
“I thought that the long break after the Munster Final was going to be positive from our point of view -we had a chance to enjoy the Munster Final for a day or two and then we had two or three weeks to prepare and get mentally tuned in for the semi-final against Dublin. We were lucky we had the five-week break, but equally the semi-final has dampened a lot of the hype that was going around about Tipp after the Munster Final. You know when you go to Croke Parkyou’re not going to get anything easy.
“It can seep through (all the talk about the team) but these guys are used to being successful - they’ve been successful at underage level and at senior level now, and they’re used to a certain amount of hype and that kind of talk. Sure it’s a concern when everybody is writing you up, but we’re going into the All-Ireland Final and we know it’s a 50-50 game. You’re going to need a bit of luck and you’re going to have to be at your best. Simple as that,” he says.
Despite having had a tough first half against the Dubs, Declan and co had faith in their ability to “tough it out” as he says. And, he was thrilled that the bench also played a big role in the win - thereby gainiing valuable experience for the next outing in Croker - next Sunday against Kilkenny when another great battle is anticipated.
“There’s no doubt that these two teams have had a couple of great battles but this is a new game now, and this game will be played on its own merits. Anything that has gone on in the past is irrelevant once the ball is thrown in. It’s a new game. Some of us who’re not of a certain vintage don’t remember the rivalry that was there between Tipp and Kilkenny in the 1950s and 60s. The games between Tipp and Kilkenny have been very manly and very sporting. There’s a lot of credit due to Kilkenny - they’ve set the standard for the last 15 years, so it’s up to the rest of the counties to try and keep up with them.
“We haven’t been in Croke Park often enough on All-Ireland Final Day over the last 40 years. You can deal with pressure whatever way you want, the pressure is that you prepare long and hard all year, so that you want to turn up on All-Ireland Final day and play to the best of your ability. That’s where the pressure is, and something the whole group has together. You just hope you turn up and play to the best of your ability on the day, and if we do that in Tipp we know we’re in with a good chance. At the moment, touch wood, we’re all fit and raring to go.”
Declan played in five All-Ireland Finals, winning three, and knows both sides of the experience. His titles in 1989, ‘91 and 2001 are cherished, but equally as valuable to his management armoury are the defeats of 1988 and 1997 at the hands of Galway and Clare. Having a man of such vast experience on the sidelines can only be of benefit to Tipp.
With this in mind, he immediately set about drawing positives from the win over Dublin, while everyone else was spinning the negatives.
“There were a lot of teams in Tipp over the last 25 years who would have been beaten by Dublin, simple as that. They wouldn’t have stuck it out the way the guys stuck it out, and that’s a testament to the character that’s in the group, and how well these guys have prepared -they showed that they can win the battles as well. The semi-final was certainly a battle, and the final itself will be a huge battle altogether. It will come down to a little bit of luck on the day and whoever gets the bounce of the ball,” he says.
Declan has grown increasingly more comfortable as the season wore on, when confronted by the media posse. His frankness, honesty and open approach has made him a popular Manager, and though he would not seek to pander to those loaded with questions, he does, nevertheless, respect many of the opinions expressed in the media. So, when he grins wryly and throws the eyes to Heaven, you know his trademark wit is about to break out - something that would not have happened six months ago.
You see, he was asked if he would have survived the modern day preparation for inter county players and he could only laugh out loud.
“There’s no comparison between now and my own playing days. From 10 years ago or back, the level that these guys are at is incredible, phenomenal, and the fitness and skill levels of these guys is so far ahead of where the game was even 10 years ago. The basic skills now are far superior, the boys’ touch is so good, their ball handling skills and the pace they’re travelling at, the speed of the game, all those things are far superior to where they were even 10 years ago.
“A team is looking for the edge all the time, and these guys do a phenomenal amount of pre-season. Physically they’re in super condition - that maybe wasn’t as intense 15 or 20 years ago. The preparation levels just go up and up every year. The guys are very lucky to have the people involved, to get them physically to where they are at the moment, and to have Tommy Dunne or someone of his calibre coaching the team, those things shouldn’t be taken for granted by any player, all those things are in the mix as to why Tipp are successful at the minute. There has been a lot of work done at underage and it’s very similar to Kilkenny, where they’ve been grinding out the results at underage, so the preparation levels are very high,” said Declan who admitted that the biggest worry he had as a player was getting himself right for the fray. Nowadays he worries about having all of the players right for action.
Right for action they’ll have to be - physically and mentally - when they take to the field in Croke Park to face Kilkenny on Sunday for what will be one almighty battle.