Liam Kearns: "Waterford are no mugs and we are well aware of that".
Waterford represent a potential Munster Senior Football Championship banana skin, but Liam Kearns and his Tipperary players will do their utmost to avoid slipping on it. The bottom line, according to Liam Kearns, is that if the Premier County does not perform against Waterford on Saturday they will lose.
Right now it is tempting for blue and gold football fans to lose the run of themselves. After all a successful provincial campaign could potentially see Tipperary play three successive championship games at Semple Stadium, Thurles - the Premier County are drawn at home to Waterford in a quarter-final on Saturday, May 19th (7pm) with a prize in the semi-finals up for grabs against Cork at Semple Stadium on Saturday, May 26th while the potential Munster final against Kerry on Saturday, June 23rd (6pm) would also be played in Thurles.
Liam Kearns, however, has no intention of falling into the trap of counting chickens. He has huge regard for this Waterford team and rightfully so.
The Déise finished seventh in division four of the Allianz National Football League - Waterford lost to Antrim (0-10 to 2-12), Laois (1-11 to 0-18), Carlow (2-9 to 2-12) and Limerick (2-9 to 2-10) while Tom McGlinchey’s men drew with Wicklow (0-12 apiece) and beat London (1-16 to 1-14); the contest with Leitrim was never played.
Such form, however, is not an accurate indicator of what this Waterford team is capable of. Last summer, for instance, Waterford came within a kick of the ball of beating Cork at Fraher Field, Dungarvan. The Rebels, a team which subsequently beat Tipperary in a provincial semi-final, led 1-4 to 0-4 at the break, but Waterford recovered to take a two-point lead in the second half and were misfortunate to lose 1-11 to 1-12.
“I was in Fraher Field last year and they had Cork beaten, really,” Liam Kearns explained to the Tipperary Star last week.
“Waterford could and should have beaten Cork in Fraher Field and Cork beat us two weeks later in the semi-final in Páirc Uí Rinn. So, Waterford are quite capable on their day of turning teams over. They play with a system that is very difficult to break down. They get lots of men behind the ball; they are very comfortable with it (their system); they are using it for the last few years and they have good players. They have a decent team and they have a system that they are playing with all of the time. If we don't turn up and perform we will be beaten - I would say that is the bottom line on it.”
Tom McGlinchey, who guided Tipperary to a Munster final in 2002, is the man responsible for guiding the Waterford team. The Mourneabbey (Cork) man has previously coached the Limerick minor and under-21 teams and was appointed Waterford manager in October 2014 - mere months later the Déise beat Cork in the McGrath Cup final. And, McGlinchey was returned to his role with Waterford for a fourth successive year following an overwhelming vote of confidence from his players last November.
Tipperary have won the last two championship contests between the sides in 2016 (1-15 to 1-7) and 2015 (1-24 to 0-5), but Liam Kearns knows that Tipperary have to be on their guard against a Waterford team who are managed by a coach as accomplished as McGlinchey.
“He has done a good job with Waterford and he has done his best in a tough environment,” Liam Kearns told the Tipperary Star.
“He got Tipperary to a Munster final many years ago. So, he is experienced and in fairness to him they nearly turned over Cork last year completely against the head. There is a lot of credit due to him and to his team for that effort. Waterford are no mugs and we are well aware of that.”
Liam Kearns, however, did admit that the possibility of playing three provincial championship matches at Semple Stadium, Thurles has not escaped his attention.
“The idea that you could play the whole Munster championship in Thurles once you win your matches is huge because it doesn't often happen,” Liam Kearns explained.
“So, I would say that it probably is a unique opportunity and we are very keen to make the most of that. And, certainly we want to play three games in Thurles, but we just have to take it one game at a time. As I said, Waterford should have beaten Cork last year and then Cork beat us. So, we can't look beyond Waterford and that's the reality for us. We have got to turn up here and perform on the 19th,” the Kerry man added.
There is, however, no getting away from the growing level of expectation which is swirling around the Tipperary team. Notable authorities on the game are predicting that the Premier County, for instance, will secure a place in the Super 8s. And, Liam Kearns was not inclined to play such talk down. He is more than happy to acknowledge the progress made.
“Yeah, that's the kind of progress that we are making. I think we were close to getting into division one this year and that is the top eight teams in the country. I would say that we are in the top ten alright. So, it's a question now of how far up through the top ten that we can go. But, look, that is what the championship is all about. The league is the league - I will judge us on our championship (performance),” Liam Kearns explained.
“This is our third championship season together and I think that championship is where you are judged. We want to try and play three championship games in Thurles this year and that was the plan starting off, but Waterford is a banana skin as some people call it. To me they will have fifteen (players) and we will have fifteen and it is a question of having to turn up and perform. And, if we don't we won't go further than Waterford.
“For the Waterford match we are favourites and we have to deal with that. We are expecting to beat Waterford and I am sure that Waterford are expecting to beat us, but it will be played outside on the pitch.”
Steven O'Brien (“turned his ankle”) and Emmet Moloney (“groin strain”) have picked up slight injuries ahead of the clash with Waterford. Given the intensity of inter-county training players are expected to pick up knocks, but Tipperary manager Liam Kearns also revealed that it has been “difficult” to prepare his panel given the circumstances in recent weeks.
“Preparations have been difficult and there is no point in saying otherwise - the club month has made it very difficult,” Liam Kearns revealed.
“We have had one challenge match - we had a challenge match organized for the weekend thirteen days before we play in the championship and it was ruled out because Croke Park said that we did not have sanction for it. So, that was cancelled. I believe that other teams have had similar stories. So, it has been difficult. We trained maybe six or seven times in April as opposed to maybe twice that normally. Normally April would be a loading month, but it isn't now. Look, it could have gone a lot better - that's the reality of it.”
Kearns also insisted that the gap between the league campaign and the forthcoming championship has made it difficult to assess the form of his individual players - Tipperary played their final game in division two of the Allianz National Football League against Down on Saturday, March 31st.
“It has been difficult in that regard. Normally, you would have four or five challenge matches played. I don't trust the challenge matches myself, but at the same time you would have three or four challenge matches played by this time of the year and we don't. So, we have got to trust our league form and in that regard it is no harm to be playing in the quarter-final. I think it is probably something that we could do with,” Liam Kearns explained before emphasizing the fact that Tipperary now have a powerful panel to call on.
“We have got a good panel - I am three years here and this is the strongest panel that we have had. We have twenty-six players that I would have a lot of faith in to be honest with you togging out and they are all capable of doing a job for us whereas we certainly did not have that in our first year and we didn't have it in our second year either. So, I would say that it's probably our strongest panel, definitely. But time will tell and we will certainly find out in one week: if we get over Waterford and have to play two matches in one week we will certainly find out an awful lot about ourselves. The boys are progressing all the time, but the championship is what it is all about. We have targeted the Waterford match and, hopefully, we will perform and produce our best against Waterford.”
And, of course Tipperary also play with a style of football that has been lauded (and coveted) the length and breadth of the country.
“I think that anybody who has watched Tipperary football will know that we play to a pattern and I would say that it has been very successful in terms of where we started to where we are now. There have been All-Ireland semi-finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals - only two years ago we took out Galway who are now one of the top teams in the country or who are at least close to it. We won a league title as well last year and we are hard to beat in the championship. And, I would say that a lot of people are talking about Tipperary's style of football. So, I would say that we have our own style alright and it's pretty effective.”
Better still, Liam Kearns and his management team have developed the mentality of the Tipperary players to a significant degree: the Premier County football team is now prepared to eagerly face down a challenge.
“Absolutely, yeah - no question,” Liam Kearns said before revealing that his players are looking forward to making their debut in the 2018 championship.
“The mood is good and the players are looking forward to getting into the championship; they know that has been the main aim all year. The big thing for us is to get there with no injuries. We got destroyed last year with injuries so we want to get there fit and ready. We are a bit concerned about the lack of game time between the league and the Waterford match, but I think Waterford are in a similar position,” Liam Kearns added.
“They (the players) have to deal with being favourites - they are good players and we have our homework done. We don't disrespect any team. We have done our homework on Waterford and have paid our due diligence to them. We will turn up knowing plenty about them and ready to perform. And, if we don't we know that they are quite capable of turning us over.”
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