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Goalkeeper back from suspension and the return of hurlers - Tipperary's brighter 2018 football picture

Before their 2018 Munster opener, Tipperary have been boosted by the availability of some former underage stars.

pjimage (2) John Meagher, Evan Comerford and Steven O'Brien are all boost to the Tipperary football cause. Source: INPHO

IN THE NARRATIVE of Tipperary’s recent football rising, the starting point is invariably nailed down as the historic 2011 All-Ireland minor success.

Seven years on it is natural to assume the products of that underage triumph are the fulcrum of their senior success.

And yet after recent absences, the presence of a 2011 trio in their plans at the dawn of the 2018 championship campaign is something they will particularly savour.

From that 2011 minor outfit that conquered Dublin, goalkeeper Evan Comerford, full-back John Meagher and midfielder Steven O’Brien are all in line to play in next Saturday night’s Munster opener against Waterford.

Individual circumstances dictate it will be a milestone for each of them in their careers.

Comerford’s last championship outing for Tipperary was the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Mayo.

Evan Comerford Evan Comerford in action against Mayo in 2016. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Then he was slapped with a 12-week ban last May arising out of an incident in a game with his club Kilsheelan-Kilcash when he was reported by referee Paddy Russell for ‘minor physical interference’ after being shown a red card. The summer was a frustrating one spent watching on rather than playing a part.

Meagher has been pursuing a hurling career after starring as a dual figure at underage level but a series of injuries stalled his drive to become a senior hurler. He was recruited by the football squad this year and the Loughmore-Castleiney man has not looked back since making his league bow against Cork in late January.

Peter Duggan and John Meagher John Meagher (right) in action for Tipperary against Clare in the 2014 Munster U21 hurling semi-final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

O’Brien was an imposing midfielder who powered Tipperary to an All-Ireland U21 football final in 2015 yet that July’s qualifier against Tyrone is his most senior championship outing in football.

Then he travelled down the hurling road and was drafted into Michael Ryan’s setup. O’Brien was part of the 2016 Liam MacCarthy Cup triumph but he was largely a peripheral figure and his game time was restricted over the course of his two senior hurling campaigns.

Steven O'Brien Steven O'Brien clips over a point for the Tipperary hurlers against Clare last July. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sweeping a point over the bar within 13 seconds of his comeback game when Tipperary faced Cork in that league clash, was a timely reminder of what he can offer from a football perspective.

Absentees hurt Tipperary last summer, particularly when they were robbed of Comerford after he shone in 2016 with his pinpoint accuracy from kickouts and the composure he provided between the posts.

The cause of his unavailability was a personal source of torment.

“It was tough on him,” admitted Tipperary selector and former netminder Paul Fitzgerald.

“He missed out on the whole championship. It probably took him a while to get over it and he regrets what he did.

“It’s good for Evan to be back in playing football again. He’s pushing himself all the time and is working very hard.

“We were lucky in the sense that Ciaran Kenrick is a very good goalkeeper too. Not a lot of counties have two ‘keepers of that calibre. He had a decent campaign in championship last year.

Ciarán Kenrick Tipperary netminder Ciarán Kenrick. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The two boys are fighting it out and that always helps. I know from my experience in goal, when you’ve a guy pushing you all the time, it makes you a better keeper. They’re two good friends and it’s great to be able to work with the two of them.”

The choice facing young players over which senior code to commit to, has been a thorny issue in Tipperary.

Fitzgerald is identified with the football cause after a decade of playing service with Tipperary between 2005 and 2014 but it does not perturb him if an emerging talent tries to become established as a hurler.

The development of the Tipperary footballers has made them a more attractive proposition. The return of Meagher and O’Brien, along with previous football comebacks from Bill Maher and Liam McGrath, has been a trend they have welcomed.

Liam McGrath scores his sides second goal Liam McGrath celebrates bagging a goal against Cavan in the league. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s been a big boost,” stated  Fitzgerald.

“They’ve been good leaders for the group. They had a few years with the hurlers and they’ve come back to us which is great. They’re looking forward to the year ahead. They love their football.

“I’ve always said it (that) Tipp is traditionally a hurling county and that’s never going to change. Tradition is very strong. If any young lad gets a chance to play hurling for Tipperary, he’s going to try it.

“It’s just good from our point of view if things don’t work out for them and they want to play football and throw their lot in with us, we’re more than happy to have them.

“It can be frustrating at times, there’s no point in saying otherwise. We’re just lucky we’ve got those guys back, the four of them.

Paul Fitzgerald Paul Fitzgerald during his days as Tipperary goalkeeper. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It probably takes a while to get back up to speed. It’s a different type of fitness to the hurling. I often hear the boys saying they need to get football fit.

“Probably the physicality of inter-county football too is (different). They’re all fitting in well and they’re raring to go.”

When Tipperary reflect on their 2017 journey, the nature of their Munster semi-final loss to Cork stirs up regrets as a late Luke Connolly goal snatched the spoils for the home team.

A busy treatment table hindered their ability to play with a full deck in the province but they feel this summer the situation has improved.

There are a couple of ailments – O’Brien is bothered by an ankle problem and Conor Sweeney picked up a knock to his hamstring – but Fitzgerald is hopeful that all will have cleared up by Saturday evening.

Waterford are first up in Semple Stadium and victory will hand them the prize of a meeting with Cork at the same venue a week later.

“Certainly we were disappointed last year,” said Fitzgerald.

“The squad was just totally savaged by injury and Evan Comerford was suspended. In the lead up to that game, we just hadn’t the boys right.

Robbie Kiely dejected after the game A dejected Robbie Kiely after Tipperary's Munster semi-final loss to Cork last June. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We were unlucky, we were probably one or two fouls away from getting to a Munster final. We’ve had a decent run at it this year and that’s been important.

“All that’s on their mind now at the moment is Waterford, a Waterford team that probably should have beaten Cork last year in Fraher Field.

“I know Tom McGlinchey well and he knows the Tipp football setup fairly well too.

“They’ll be hard to break down, they’ve a good system in place. We just have to get over that game first.”

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