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'It's never nice being told you're a sub' - Tipp star on challenges, Limerick ties and his best position

We caught up with two-time All-Ireland winner Michael Breen ahead of the 2021 season.

FROM THE OUTSIDE looking in, a championship that saw Tipperary relinquish their All-Ireland crown wasn’t a successful one, yet Michael Breen took quiet satisfaction from his own individual campaign.  

michael-breen Tipperary's Michael Breen. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Team honours always supersede personal gongs, but it says a lot about the midfielder’s character that he was nominated for an All-Star after a season that began with him sitting among the substitutes for the Premier’s Munster opener against Limerick.

Despite the defeat, Breen showed enough in his 25-minute cameo that afternoon to warrant a place in the team for the qualifier clash against Cork. 

He was disappointed not to start against the Treaty, but the 26-year-old channelled that hurt in the right way and was rewarded by Liam Sheedy.

He grabbed his opportunity with both hands against the Rebels, firing over a five-point haul from midfield on the way to sealing man-of-the-match honours.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s never nice being told you’re a sub or finding yourself on the bench,” he tells The42. “But it’s a privilege being in that position to be involved in a set-up like Tipperary number one.

“I knew I had something to give, we knew the format meant we had a second chance anyway. It wasn’t like the football where one defeat and we were gone. So I kept the head held high, I’ve a good support network around me in terms of friends and family.

“When I came on, I like to feel I gave something. Obviously we lost that game but I put the head down, trained hard, got my place against Cork and took it. That’s all you can do really.

“You look at the Cork game in a positive light, man-of-the-match you’d always look back on that with a smile.” 

On his second All-Star nomination he remarks, “It is nice to get the recognition. If I didn’t get a nomination it wouldn’t bother me either, but it’s nice for the family and club members as well.

“It gives them a small lift and they’ve been so supportive of me. It’s great to see them energetic and be positive about it too.” 

While it was “a bit of a kick in the teeth” to hear that the return of collective training had been delayed, Breen is doing what he can to stay in shape.

As a teacher in High School Clonmel, he’s currently working from home. It allows him squeeze in a running session at lunch time, or pump a few weights with music blasting in his Thurles home. 

“We do keep the competition up, we use the WhatsApp group well to communicate,” he says. “It can be a lonely place but it’s just a new challenge.” 

The lengthy off-season has given players the opportunity to work on parts of their game they’d otherwise neglect during the busy training periods. 

“Every year you play, you’re looking to push on again, to improve the whole time. If you don’t, I think you’re wasting your own time because I don’t think there’s anyone out there that’s turning up saying, ‘I’m going to do the same thing I did last year.’

“You’re at nothing really unless you’re looking for the small inches and yards to get better.”

Mobility is one area on the conditioning side of things he’s focusing to ensure his body is ready to go once collective training can resume.

“It’s something I found really beneficial,” he says of Sport Physio Ireland’s new Athletic Development App.

“Mobility is something that’s hard to do, it does take discipline because it’s not noticed massively. At the start of my career when I was younger I didn’t really do much of it at all but as you get older you literally have to do it.”  

County panels are not permitted to train collectively, but that doesn’t mean they’re not busy analysing performances in 2020 and planning ahead for the new season.

padraic-maher-and-michael-breen-celebrate Breen and Padraic Maher after Tipperary's 2019 All-Ireland victory. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As a squad, Tipperary have used recent Zoom meetings to reflect on last year. After arriving into the season as All-Ireland champions, the Premier lost by nine points to Limerick in Munster and narrowly fell to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

“You’d do a small bit of work looking at games last year where things went well and where they didn’t go so well. We had a couple of tasks as a group to look at ourselves and evaluate how we got on last year, where we slipped up.

“Luckily we were coming from a position of All-Ireland champions and we had an X on our back. We think we should have done a bit better. But those are the things you look at, the small improvements. 

“Against Galway last year there was a point or two in the game. Small tweaks would have made a difference, so they’re the things you look for.”

Breen admits the defeat that ended their season made for difficult viewing. In a game of such fine margins, every mistake is magnified. 

“You could read into so much where you could have done better, particularly when you lose a game. I watched back that game, noticed a few touches I’d missed, there was three or four balls I ran over.

“You’d like to think you’d get them in hand, create a score or score yourself and is that us over the line into a semi-final? You couldn’t break it down that much because you’d wreck your own head looking at the details that much.”  

michael-breen-and-sean-odonoghue Breen has a shot at the posts against Cork. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Breen has enjoyed more success than most on the inter-county scene. Since making his debut in 2015, he won a pair of All-Ireland and Munster titles, yet like any top level athlete there have been plenty of peaks and troughs along the way.

With such a talented group of players in the Premier County, it brings its own pressure and expectation. He started the All-Ireland wins of 2016 and 2019, but the squad endured a couple of lean years in between.

Inevitably, they shipped criticism inside and outside the county when success didn’t come by as easily. 

“Coming into the team in 2014 at first was great. You had Eoin Kelly, Paul Curran, Lar Corbett all these guys around the dressing room. Players you would have looked up to when you were U10.

“To get in around them was a bit surreal but you do grow into it. You make it your own and create your own personality and identity through that. You might think it’s great you can always go to these guys for advice, but unless you go through the motions yourself and understand how training works…”

He details the small things that can only be learned with experience: “The fact you’re going to be sore, you’re going to be tired, you’re going to have good days and bad days.

“Until you understand all these things, that’s really what makes you. You can get any word of advice from past players but the experience of living through a set-up like that is invaluable.

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“I got my first start, my championship debut in 2015, but I became a regular in 2016 when we were in the All-Ireland. Things dipped them a small bit for us, no silverware in 2017 or 2018. That hurt.

“I think 2018 really did hurt our group. We didn’t develop as we’d have liked to. It gave us a bit of time, it was actually a bit of a break. A couple of us went to America playing hurling after that but it was a bit of soul searching as well.

“There’s no one fix for it. We had to figure it out ourselves and what we actually wanted to do. With the help of Liam then coming in in 2019 it was the perfect formula of hurt and motivation from Liam got us over the line.” 

barry-nash-with-paul-flynn-and-michael-breen Action from the 2020 league meeting between Tipperary and Limerick. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Heading into this season, Breen accepts John Kiely’s all-conquering Limerick are “the team that you’re looking to take down.” The rivals and neighbours have carved up four of the last five All-Irelands between them. 

He has close ties to some members of the Treaty squad, having repeated his Leaving Cert at Castletroy College in Limerick.

He played Harty Cup for the school alongside two-time All-Ireland winners Barry Nash and Tom Morrissey.

“We had a good set-up there, we had a lot of guys that were on the Limerick minor team that time,” he recalls.

“There was always a good sporting nature in the school as senior cup [rugby] was always looked at as number one, which it was, but we always felt with the Harty Cup that we could kick on and create a status for us as a hurling school.

“Through the guys like Tom Morrissey and Barry Nash, it did get that bit of recognition there.

“If I see the guys in and around Limerick you’d have a conversation. Or if you’re out any night you’d chat to the guys aright. When you go to school with someone and you play against them then in a county match, you’d always have a bit of a bond with them.

“It’s the same with the guys when I was in college [in UCC] in Cork, if I meet them after playing in a senior championship game you’d always have a link to them.” 

Dan Morrissey, a first year in UL at the time, helped out with some coaching as did former Tipperary defender Paddy Stapleton under manager Declan Fitzgerald.

tom-morrissey Tom Morrissey played Harty Cup alongside Breen. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We won the Limerick schools county final that time which was nice to get a bit of silverware. We got to the Harty quarter-final that year and were beaten by Thurles who were a quality side at the time. The standout was winning the schools county final.” 

Breen’s club Ballina is nestled in the north west of Tipperary, with only a bridge dividing them from the Killaloe parish in county Clare.

“I’ve family over in Killaloe in Clare, I’ve cousins over there. Say in 2013 when they got to the All-Ireland final they came over and painted on the streets in Ballina ‘Up the Banner’.

“It’s a bit of craic. When Tipp are on top it’s a great buzz. When Clare are on top it’s a great buzz for them. There’s no malice to it, it’s never a spiteful thing. It’s always a good rivalry and there’s good banter in Ballina-Killaloe with that too.”

One of the most versatile players in the game, Breen’s best position has long been a talking point among supporters. He has played on every line from half-back up for Tipperary, yet first rose to prominence as a full-back on the Tipperary minor side.

At the same time, he was regularly featuring at full-forward for Ballina minors.

“Very similar in terms of your approach and how you attack the ball. When I was playing full-back at that time, I understood what a full-forward didn’t want so it was just a matter of doing that. It worked out for me at that time.”

He debuted at centre-forward for the club’s adult side at intermediate level. His rookie campaign concluded with the Tipperary IHC title and a run to the Munster final in 2013.  

“Since then I’ve been midfield with the club, centre-back now currently,” he says.

“With Tipp then I was all over the place: corner-forward some years, wing-back other years. I suppose midfield and centre-forward were positions I played most prominently, enjoyed and had some of my best days in them positions.

“Anywhere in the middle third these days is very similar. You look at some teams and they’re literally rotating in them positions. Look at Limerick they have guys who can play wing-forward and wing-back, they could swap the next day and start in a complete different position within that middle third.

“I think it’s about having enough variety in your game and adaptability to be able to switch from wing-forward to midfield to wing-back, whatever it may be. Personally, midfield or centre-forward were positions so far where I’ve really enjoyed.” 

michael-breen-reacts-after-his-goal-was-disallowed Breen flying forward from midfield in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

He has often put up big scoring tallies from midfield. Breen explains “there’s two very different types of games you can have in midfield.” 

“On a good day you’d be on the receiving end of the hard work your back line has put in to get the ball as far as midfield. Or vice versa, if there’s a puck-out to a wing-forward and you’re coming off the shoulder on them days you’re the finisher.

“Other days that middle third section is really the work zone. You’re in the trenches there, dogging it out. You might be running a lot and not getting on a lot of ball. Midfield can be like that sometimes.

“The ball could be going over your head for a lot of the match or else it can be worked through you. On the days it’s worked through you it’s brilliant as a midfielder because you’re on a lot of ball.

“On the days it doesn’t, you really have to dig deep and understand do I push on or fall back here? How do I get on the ball? How I get my possessions up? That’s just game management at the end of the day.” 

Wherever he plays, when the 2021 season eventually rolls around Tipperary’s Mr Versatile will be ready.

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Michael Breen was speaking at the launch of Sports Physio Ireland’s new Athletic Development App for GAA Club Teams.

Click the link here to register for your free session

Athletic Development Pass 2020-04-17 at 15.51.58

About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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