'I was an absolute emotional wreck, from laughing to nearly breaking down in tears' - Tipperary's day of glory

Tipperary football’s long-serving stalwart on finally getting a Munster senior title win.

Tipperary footballers Philip Austin and Brian Fox celebrate after yesterday's Munster final.
Tipperary footballers Philip Austin and Brian Fox celebrate after yesterday's Munster final.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

EMOTIONS RAN HIGH on a November Sunday.

It was that kind of afternoon, whether you were playing in the heat of the arena in Páirc Uí Chaoimh or watching on from a living room in West Tipperary, nerves fraying with each passing minute.

A collective wait of over eight decades hung over Tipperary football. Brian Fox had journeyed through a chunk of that struggle and disappointment.

When the final whistle blasted in the stadium yesterday, it confirmed he was a Munster senior football champion in his 13th season of membership of the Tipperary squad.

On this 2020 weekend where the air was thick with historical memories, that moment of success over Cork hit Fox hard.

“I’ll tell you now I was an absolute emotional wreck at the end of it. I went from laughing to nearly breaking down in tears, cheering and running. I was all over the shop, I just couldn’t control my emotions.

“The whole week there’d be a huge build up. While you try and block out the outside noise about the jerseys and the commemoration stuff, it does take its’ toll on you emotionally. It plays on your mind.

“When you are older, you do appreciate what you’ve been through. In those moments after the final whistle when you are out there and you look at the lad beside you who you’re after soldiering with for so long. Myself and Philly (Austin), we had a good moment after the game, just the realisation that, ‘Yeah this is it like.’

the-tipperary-team-celebrate Tipperary players celebrate their Munster final win over Cork. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Back home they were glued to the TV coverage. His wife Siobhan trying to follow the match with three-year-old son Tadhg and six-month-old daughter Lilly for company.

Amidst the celebrations of this landmark occasion, the tinge of regret for Fox was the empty stands and terraces around him on Leeside.

“Siobhan told me today she didn’t get to see the last ten minutes at all really. Our youngest started crying because the rest of the family were making so much noise.

“Not having your family there to congratulate you or commiserate with you, that’s a huge thing. I know my family were nervous wrecks up here in Tipperary. They would have only loved to have been there. They’re the reason you play.

“My wife and I have spoken about it, it’s tough. Tadhg, he’s at an age where you’d love for him to be on the pitch and be able to bring him in your arms around the place. But you don’t get the moments.

“My family are very good, my parents, all my cousins would be very good to support and go to all the matches. Not to have them there is very tough because they’re there in all the bad moments, it’d be great to share the good moments with them.”

Fox’s involvement represents a triumph for perseverance. If Tipperary’s football narrative has been viewed as one of gradual progress, fuelled by underage statements, then his personal career story is different.

The 32-year-old played in his sixth Munster football final yesterday. The previous five all generated the same outcome. It started off at minor level in 2006 against Kerry. Then a trio of U21 deciders between 2007 and 2009. He fired 1-1 against Kerry in ’08, then the last of that sequence particularly stung when he shot 1-2, claimed the man-of-the-match award but saw his team agonisingly caught at the line by a last-gasp Cork goal.

brian-fox-scores-their-first-goal Brian Fox scores a goal against Cork in the 2009 Munster U21 final. Source: John D Kelly/INPHO

In 2016 they recorded a first senior championship victory over Cork in 72 years to reach a final but Kerry’s prowess meant it was a familiar feeling for Fox. Tasting defeat and wondering if he would ever add a provincial medal for his efforts to an honours list that only contained a couple of Division 3 league accolades.

This was a gigantic step forward. Opponents Cork had been frequent foes and Fox needed little reminding of the high stakes at play.

“We knew them so well and we’ve always been very competitive. From that aspect we didn’t fear them and we said this is the opportunity to go do it. There’s no hoping another opportunity arises. When we saw Cork beat Kerry, we knew we’d never have a better chance.

“For the older lads, we were just hungry full stop because we’ve never tasted that success. You made progress but it’s different when you don’t have a cup to show for it.”

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For himself and Austin, the oldest player on the panel who kicked a point with his very first touch, this was the day they had long craved. Others like defensive pair Alan Campbell and Robbie Kiely, and their captain Conor Sweeney had soldiered for several seasons in the trenches as well with little reward.

conor-sweeney-lifts-the-trophy-after-tipperary-are-munster-champions Conor Sweeney lifts the Munster senior football trophy. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Watching players file out of the dressing-room in recent years for the last time gave Fox pause for thought.

“I wouldn’t see others move on and think, ‘Jesus I have to move on.’ When your responsibilty grows in work and at home, that’s when you start thinking about, maybe that it’s time to give it over to a younger generation.

“As long as I have the energy in the legs and I feel I can give something to Tipperary, then I’d always love to put on the jersey.”

He’s the only parent on the Tipperary panel, a position of responsibility that marks a contrast to the youthful figures in their group.

“The younger lads, some of the stuff they’d be on about, I haven’t a clue,” he laughs.

“They’re living in a totally different planet to what I grew up in. They can’t even I’d say get over the fact that I have kids. I’d say my three-year-old is more mature than some of them at times!”

They’re at different stages of life but the shutdown of activity last spring and summer, that sudden loss of something so central to his routine, was hard to adjust to.

tipperary-players-celebrate Tipperary players celebrate after yesterday's win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was challenging. You’re with fellas for seven or eight months, they’re your friends and then you don’t get to meet them at all. You try to do Zooms to keep the camraderie going but it is difficult. At the end of the day the reason you’re all friends is because you’re playing elite level sport together and you have that common bond as a result. I found lockdown quite tough in that regard, not being able to train as a group and meet up with the lads.”

They got the gang back together in the autumn and hit the inter-county trail once more. Momentum started to build. This month in the space of 22 days, they took off. Getting past Clare by three, prevailing against Limerick after extra-time with Fox lofting over the winner and rounding it off against Cork.

brian-fox-kicks-a-the-winning-point Brian Fox kicks the winning point in the Munster semi-final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It is a county where hurling largely holds sway, his uncle Pat was one of the county’s most decorated forwards. But this struck a blow for football, back in Annacarty and Donohill they toasted their local hero. The well wishes poured in from plenty other quarters as well.

“For a small club, we’ve punched above our weight. Conor and my cousin Tom and Darragh Mooney have All-Ireland medals, Pat before them.

“My brother Kevin, Paud O’Dwyer my cousin, Eoin Kennedy all have U21 Munster medals with Tipperary. They’d often say it that football wise it has been tough for a long time. We are predominantly a hurling club but they understand how passionate I am about it.

“The lads were all sending messages last night and you really appreciate them. We were all speaking in the squad about last how much of a crowd would have come out and met us if we had crossed the border into Tipp and there wasn’t Covid.

“It meant a lot to a lot of people. My phone still hasn’t stopped hopping. I’m trying to respond to people that’d be huge into Tipp football and would have always supported me. They’re a real tight-knit group. I haven’t got back to all of them yet, I will get onto them though. I’ll have some size of a phone bill this winter!”

pat-fox-391989 Pat Fox in action for the Tipperary hurlers. Source: James Meehan/INPHO

Fox never completely lost hope of Tipperary realising their ambitions yet recent times had tested his reserves of belief.

“’18 and ’19 were hugely disappointing. Last year I think we only won one game. Losing to Limerick and the manner in which we lost, put a real dampener everything. You just felt all the progress that had been made up to that point seemed to be just fading.

“Key players had left the squad, George, Peter Acheson, Ciarán, Mikey we knew was going travelling. It looked like we were going down a path where we wouldn’t be able to compete at the top level which is what we wanted to do.”

In March 2018 they took on Cavan in a league promotion decider to determine which of the pair would join the elite in Division 1. The home side won by a point that day in Breffni Park, both themselves and Tipperary ploughed through lean times thereafter. Then remarkably they both came in from the provincial wilderness on the same Sunday, sparking wild outbreaks of joy.

This morning Fox was back teaching in St Anne’s secondary school in Tipperary Town. The other teachers met him outside, saluting at a distance during the post-match chatter. Students wore their Tipperary colours.

The success has lifted the mood. Now thoughts turn to early December in Croke Park, Mayo the obstacle as they chase an All-Ireland final place.

“I think the stars aligned. I’m a full believer in self-fulfilling prophecy, people sometimes believes things repeat themselves and sometimes they do. Others get the fear and others take great hope from it.

“Mayo are a fantastic team but we’ve always battled hard against them. Sure the dream is to be in an All-Ireland final and sure if we’ve to beat Mayo to do it, that’s what we’ll try and do.”


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Fintan O'Toole

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