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Kearns vows that Tipperary will only get better following stunning Croke Park success

The Premier County boss has been reflecting on a League campaign that saw him use 27 players.

FOR FIVE SUCCESSIVE senior football championship games in 2016, Tipperary manager Liam Kearns named an unchanged team.

After Kearns named his line-up for the historic Munster SFC semi-final victory over Cork, there was no change for the remainder of the campaign, as the Premier County progressed to an All-Ireland semi-final appearance against Mayo.

This summer, the landscape is different. During the 2017 Allianz Football League season, which yielded promotion from Division 3 and Croke Park silverware, Kearns used 27 players.

From the team that lined out against Antrim on the opening day, there were nine survivors in the starting XV at Croke Park last Saturday, namely goalkeeper Evan Comerford, defenders Alan Campbell, Paddy Codd, Willie Connors and Robbie Kiely, and forwards Josh Keane, Brian Fox, Conor Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan.

By the end of the League campaign, Shane O’Connell, Bill Maher, Liam Casey, Jack Kennedy, Kevin O’Halloran and Emmet Moloney had forced themselves into the team for the divisional showpiece against Louth at GAA HQ.

Liam Casey celebrates scoring a goal Liam Casey celebrates his goal against Louth in the Allianz Football League Division 3 final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Maher and O’Halloran were regular starters last year and reclaimed their places having recovered from injury but Casey and former minor star Kennedy are a new midfield partnership, after Kearns started the campaign with Martin Dunne and Alan Moloney.

Newcomers O’Connell and Moloney have also made big impacts and this time, it’s not as easy to predict the championship team that Kearns will field when Tipp face Cork or Waterford in the Munster SFC semi-final in June.

The loss of Peter Acheson to Dubai left Kearns with a hole to fill in midfield but he does have options. As well as the aforementioned Moloney, Dunne, Kennedy and Casey, George Hannigan is another player who will stake a claim for a central spot.

Stefan Campbell and George Hannigan George Hannigan is one of Tipp's most experienced players. Source: Presseye/Philip Magowan/INPHO

What caught up with Tipperary last year was a lack of strength in depth but Kearns, over the winter months, moved to rectify that, introducing a number of new players to his squad.

He’s got to look at many of them while Colm O’Shaughnessy, a regular starter last year, only returned to action last Saturday, while former International Rules player Ciarán McDonald has yet to kick a ball in anger for the county this year.

Ciaran McDonald and Sean White Ciarán McDonald has yet to play for Tipperary this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ian Fahey, a superb midfielder for the All-Ireland winning minors in 2011, and a Munster U21 winner two years ago, is another player who has suffered with injury in recent times and Philip Austin, a starting forward when fit, missed the conclusion of the League campaign through injury.

If Fahey could get himself fit and back in form, he would provide another useful outlet for Kearns around the middle third.

The team is constantly evolving, which is healthy, and while losing the likes of Acheson to a stint abroad, Colin O’Riordan to Australian Rules Football and hurling pair Steven O’Brien and Seamus Kennedy were big blows, Kearns and his backroom men have adapted admirably.

Of the players used in the 2011 All-Ireland minor final win, just three starters from that game lined out on Saturday. Liam McGrath came off the bench to swell the number to four but O’Riordan, Kennedy and O’Brien all played that day, and have since moved on to other codes.

Seamus Kennedy celebrates Former senior football panellist Seamus Kennedy was an All-Ireland senior hurling winner last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

John Meagher did too and he’s also with the hurlers, while Kearns is still monitoring the future intentions of 2011 goal hero Colman Kennedy and his close friend, Greg Henry, who have been abroad in recent years.

John McGrath was another notable member of that 2011 set-up but he was always destined for big things with the senior hurlers. Jason Lonergan came on as sub in that final and he didn’t feature in the League either due to injury.

Kearns would also like to have a look at Philip Quirke from Moyle Rovers, a gifted footballer who has suffered with a spate of serious knee injuries in recent times.

The big point to make is that the sterling work begun in the mid to late noughties, that led to an unprecedented spell of underage success, is now bearing some fruit.

Liam McGrath and John McGrath Cousins Liam (left) and John McGrath with the All-Ireland minor football trophy in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Tipp may not have harvested as many players as they would have liked from that 2011 minor set-up but there were external factors at play there, too.

“We brought 17 new players into the panel,” Kearns revealed after Saturday’s victory over Louth at Croke Park.

“The whole campaign has been pleasing so far as we got the job done and we’ve blooded a lot of players.

“Liam Boland came on again and scored, he scored in Armagh as well, we brought on Alan Moloney, he did the same in Armagh as well and George Hannigan, we’re trying to get him back too.

There’s a lot of improvement in us, Mikey Quinlivan is getting plaudits but Mikey’s only just getting fit at this stage, he came back very late (middle of January), he was enjoying life there for a while so we have improvement in us, I think.

“There are quite a few lads out there that will improve, Bill Maher is just about coming back to his form, he played very very well today but he has a lot of improvement in him.”

Kearns has far more options at his disposal than this time 12 months ago, when Tipp were struggling after failing to gain promotion from Division 3.

Jason Lonergan Tipperary footballer Jason Lonergan. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Another big setback was confirmation from Casey, Kevin Fahey and Jason Lonergan that they were heading to the United States for the summer but all three are now back on board.

And what has happened, on the back of underage glory, is that Tipperary football has lost the inferiority complex that dogged it for many years.

Beating one of Munster’s traditional big two (Cork) in last year’s Munster semi-final was a huge breakthrough in that regard.

Presuming that Cork get past Waterford in the Munster quarter-final, Tipp have the chance to beat the Rebels again, this time on enemy soil.

Liam Kearns celebrates Tipperary manager Liam Kearns (centre), celebrates last year's Munster SFC semi-final victory over Cork, flanked by strength and conditioning coach Dave Moriarty (right) and Josh Keane. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Starting the 2018 campaign, both counties will operate in Division 2 of the Allianz League and Tipp now have the chance to steal a march on the Leesiders, by announcing themselves as the undisputed challengers to Kerry’s provincial throne.

Cork’s recent regression has certainly aided Tipperary in that quest but they must continue to do their talking on the pitch. Lifting silverware at Croke Park is a lovely thing but the challenge for Kearns and his men now is to show that they’re up for another championship fight.

Tipperary players used during 2017 Allianz Football League

Evan Comerford, Alan Campbell, Paddy Codd, Willie Connors, Kevin Fahey, Robbie Kiely, Jimmy Feehan, Alan Moloney, Martin Dunne, Josh Keane, Liam McGrath, Brian Fox, Conor Sweeney, Michael Quinlivan, Philip Austin, Kevin O’Halloran, Emmet Moloney, Ian Fahey, Liam Boland, Joseph Hennessy, Luke Boland, Jack Kennedy, Liam Casey, George Hannigan, Shane O’Connell, Bill Maher, Colm O’Shaughnessy.

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