‘One last thing, up Tipp’

The final line from the Premier county captain’s speech at an empty at Páirc Uí Chaoimh was fitting on a day which showed once more that sport more than anything is about our relationships with the people we love

Larry Ryan, centre, with Ollie Baker, left, and Peter Walsh after Kilmacud Crokes‘ triumph in 2014 Dublin SHC

There was a moment in Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney’s speech that every player who has ever lost a final at any level of any code in Gaelic Games could relate to. The part where the losing side get thanked, are told they gave a good game and that the victors will surely see them down the road some day. It always feels terrible to be on the other side of it.

That was the part that made the impossible seem real on Sunday. The idea that a Tipperary football captain would be in the stand delivering it after lifting the famously nameless Munster Cup after an 85 year-year wait, rather than looking on stoically.

Before Sweeney had a chance to walk into the stand, the call home had already been made.

Dad was still a couple of months away from his first birthday the last time Tipperary had won this title. He’s had a lot of good days since then, with the hurlers and with his adopted county of Dublin where he hasn’t picked up a lick of the accent despite living there almost 70 years.

It’s the ones that never quite seem to get there that matter more. The prestige of the title is often secondary to the need to win the one you just can’t get over. The current conditions meant I couldn’t watch on Sunday with him but I narrowly beat the rest of the siblings to the punch at the whistle to roar my approval down the line.

It’s easy to know, even without being able to see this face, what Sunday meant to him because I’ve seen the dark days and when they come good. He’s also told me plenty of them, often wistfully. When I asked about his brief tenure at the helm of the Dublin senior hurlers in the 1970s I asked him how they got on the championship. His reply was simple, “We didn’t”.

In the 1984 All-Ireland minor football final a confused spectator asked him why a man in Tipp colours was cheering a Dub scoring, he explained the scorer was in the minors at our club Kilmacud Crokes so of course he’d be happy with that.

Those loyalties being confused more than divided led to some odd moments although it was always easy enough to see where he stood. The man loves an underdog the same as the rest of us, mostly because he’s known the stress that comes with it.


Parnell Park, 1985 — full time after coaching the losing Crokes side in the Dublin Junior Hurling final, he walked to the far end of the ground. There, in necessary solitude, he chewed through however many smokes were in his pocket. Ma knew to let him be and he eventually got himself together before heading to the car. The seniors winning their fourth county title the same year couldn’t make up for that disappointment. The one he needed had slipped by.


No lead felt safe on Sunday for anyone rooting for Tipp. Rhyme and reason had nothing to do with it. They’d seen days like this before where they looked to have the better of one of Munster’s perennial big two, only to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.

Then there was that one glimmer, actually a spell that proved decisive but didn’t feel that way at the time, as the clock got past the hour mark.

Cork had cut the margin from four to just two points but had to graft for both scores. One more and the usual ending seemed inevitable. One high ball grabbed by Colin O’Riordan, and he won plenty, changed the tone. A long free converted by Evan Comerford was followed immediately by Michael Quinlivan grabbing a misplaced Cork kick out and popping it over. The goal was empty so it looked a missed opportunity but Tipp had needed just two kicks of the ball to erase the hard work Cork had put in. That’s the type of act you see from the big teams when they are killing off hope.


Croke Park, June 30 1991 — the previous summer I’d sat with Dad in the Hogan Stand as Offaly made light work of Dublin in the Leinster Hurling Final. The Dubs were not expected to match their season of a year prior where they’d actually won a game in the championship before bowing out to the Faithful. In the lower Cusack on this day, a two point lead at half time had my 10-year-old self giddy. At full time, that same margin had both of us jumping wildly on our seats. We’d watch Tipp lift Liam MacCarthy a few months later but the difference was we went into Croker that day with our hopes high.


There may be no county football team on the island more suited to playing in an empty stadium than Tipp. The crowds, even during some great runs in the qualifiers, were often pitiful and home games hitting five digits was a big ask. Not for the lack of football people in the county, but when hope is so hard to come by it’s hard to get them through the turnstiles. Tipp footballers are used to not having the crowd in their favour so playing in front of nobody wasn’t going to phase them.

Not that it felt any less tense for those watching on TV or the web. It had been 28 years since anyone other than Cork or Kerry lifted this cup, when Clare won their first since 1917, and all the way back to Tipp’s 1935 win for the last before that. Limerick and Tipp had delivered plenty of days in the years since 1992 between them where it looked like the hegemony would be broken. This was not a time for hope.


O’Toole Park 1992 — the most junior hurling line-up possible took the field for Crokes against Faughs in the county final. Pacey youngsters? Check. Guys not quite good enough for the seniors? Check. The odd player who clearly prioritised football? Check. Guys who had lost more than a step as the years wore on? Absolutely check. One Garda who fit that last category but was also just ridiculously strong with the ball in hand? Yup. That mixed bag got Larry over the line with the one he needed. That he broke the base off the trophy upon arriving back at the clubhouse was irrelevant.


One game does not save the inter county football championship but that’s also far too much to ask of it. Dublin’s 2002 Leinster title was a big deal for football in the county, with the trophy doing the tour of the player’s clubs and locals. It had been a whopping seven years without one, the taste was there.

Growing up supporting Dublin through the 1990s and into the late 2000s was seeing a side have to go through all kinds of pain to finally eke out an All-Ireland in 1995, cheering on a Westmeath minor side that none on the Hill realised would cause the nadir of the Boys in Blue within a decade, before spending so many summers waiting for the county to be as competitive as Pat O’Neill’s charges had been. I turned 30 in April 2011, the first round of the 2021 Leinster championship is after my next birthday. The whole of my 30s has been spent without knowing defeat for the footballers in Leinster.

The idea of running onto the field, or rather being stuffy about not being permitted, for a Leinster title is ludicrous to me. Heaven help the stewards in Páirc Uí Chaoimh who’d have had to stop the Tipp fans that would have been there on Sunday were they allowed in the gate.


Croke Park, St Patrick’s Day 1995 — Mick Pender’s penalty save at the death secured the unthinkable. Crokes were All-Ireland club football champions. Never known for his athleticism, it was a shock to my 13 year old face to see Dad outpacing most of the bench and he pegged it from there across the field. Serious work for a man a few months shy of 60 and I recall describing it as a cross between Linford Christie and Michael Flatley at the time. One leap and I was hanging off his neck. Two of the lads who had won that other big one in 1992, Robbie Leahy and Mark Duncan, were on the side that day. Later in the day, club members were shocked to see him walk in moments after hearing him do an interview on the radio. The concept of pre-recording being lost on the other members.


There are different flavours of joy. Much as dominance has a calming effect, as a Dubs fan I can really confirm this, there’s nothing like the unthinkable and it doesn’t matter the level. Since 1935, Tipperary hurlers have won 17 All-Ireland titles. Their longest wait was 18 years and even that ended in a facile victory over Antrim. There have been rakes of Munster and underage titles to go with it. Each celebrated but rarely did Tipp go in without the supporters fancying their chances.

The 2010 title probably stands out more than most for Tipp fans because they stopped a juggernaut, ending Kikenny’s drive for five.

Cork and Kerry don’t define their rivalry by who wins the province, it’s by who beats who. If they did, then Conor Counihan’s brilliant tenure at the helm of the Rebels would be recognised more for the sheer amount of trophies won under him. For the other four counties, two waiting more than 120 years for such an honour, the idea of winning Munster is just extraordinary.


Croke Park, September 18 2011 - Tipp were playing Dublin in the minor final, again, but the real nerves were about the main event against Kerry. At 77, Dad wasn’t skipping across fields anymore but there was still some energy there. As we walked to the lift to bring us up to the lower Cusack, the steps were too much to ask, he got some light hearted slagging from one of the officials in Croker. Dave Brady, a good mate of mine and steward at HQ, knew where we were seated and popped over to surprise Dad with a Dairy Milk for each of us. When he went out for a smoke for the first time he gleefully pointed out that the particular section there still had a no smoking sign from the days of the total ban in Croker.

Full time in the minor and he was lording it over me. Through Kerry’s comeback and move into a commanding-looking four-point lead in the senior, we both got nervous. Then Kevin McManamon found the net, I just turned to him roaring “We’ve got a chance.” The rest of the game you know and at full time Larry was in his first ever selfie. Amazingly he kept his eyes open while I didn’t.

Emmet and Larry Ryan after the 2011 All-Ireland football final


By contrast, in the warmth of Istanbul in 2017 the feeling was relief. I was away covering EuroBasket and the final happened to be the same day as the football final. A bunch of Serbian and Slovenian scribes looked on perplexed as I walked around my chair with the grunts at my laptop getting louder before Dublin eventually beat Mayo for three in a row. Four in a row was nice, mainly because it was the first time I’d seen Dublin win one without giving cause for stress. The fifth was special due to the record but the stage at which Dublin fans have to pause to worry gets later every year.

It’s when we don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait that we get relaxed. Dad didn’t know that 1985 win for the senior hurlers would be the last until 2012. Another came in 2014 and a couple of days later a former coach sent me a picture of the two of them with Ollie Baker holding the cup. Not the same as 2012 for sure but still a hell of a feeling in its own right.

Tipp fans went into this autumn not knowing if their lads would even get a second day out. Clare and Limerick were both opponents more than capable of getting the win on their day. They didn’t and Tipp had the chance to have their day. They’d had their chance before, this time they actually took it.

There’s a chance Dublin meet Tipp in the final on December 19, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. For now, I just hope the situation with the pandemic eases enough that I don’t need to imagine his face during the semi-final in a fortnight.