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'I'll die a happy man now anyway' - retiring after 15 seasons as a Tipperary Munster winner

Philip Austin called time on his inter-county career with the Premier after a long run of service.

Updated May 3rd 2021, 12:03 PM

philip-austin-celebrates-with-brian-fox-after-the-game Philip Austin (left) and Brian Fox celebrate Tipperary's Munster final win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A FORTNIGHT AGO Philip Austin was released from sporting captivity. Lockdown – at least for inter-county players – was over.

Monday wasn’t just the start of the week but the 2021 season, his 17th as a Tipperary footballer. If the first session back was straightforward; the decision, 24 hours later, was seismic.

The end was called, the curtain down, his career over as he sent word to Tipp’s management and players.

By the Friday he had despatched the tweet to signal he was officially moving on.

A kneejerk reaction? Far from it; the prospect had been brewing in Austin’s mind ever since Tipperary finished up last December against Mayo in the eerie setting of a Croke Park stadium shrouded in fog, clarity forming in the Dublin mist.

“I rang Davy (Power, Tipperary manager) and said, ‘I mightn’t be in tonight (Monday), Wednesday or Friday.’

‘He said, ‘Right, listen come over tonight and we’ll have a chat.’

“So I went over and met him before training. I actually had the boots in the car. My finger was at me as well and I was probably looking for an excuse.

“He just said, ‘Get the finger strapped up there, go out for a run and see how you get on.’

“I went out and had a mighty time training. Two hours later I arrived back in home after going over to announce my retirement. I came home to weigh in again and was thinking, ‘Jaysus I’d better ring him.’

“So I did it the following day so I couldn’t be persuaded to go over training on the Wednesday.”

For the record he stresses it had not been an evening of punishing runs, the sort of pre-season torture that tests the enthusiasm.

In truth it seemed an appropriate way to bow out with one last run around Dr Morris Park, the grounds he had been visiting on a weekly basis for almost half his life.

The 17-season run started out at minor level before moving on to U21 which overlapped with that lengthy stretch of senior service.

“Whilst I was training, I knew it was my last time going around the pitch,” Austin says. “One more time ….. it was nice to just go over to see the lads again.”

That’s where it ends.

*********

The story begins in Borrisokane, right up in the northern corner of Tipperary, locked in by the Galway and Offaly borders, halfway on the road from Nenagh to Portumna, smack in the middle of hurling country.

It was never suggested that football was his destination and it was athletics that grabbed his interest first.

“I only started GAA when I was 12, going on 13. I was very late to the scene and always struggled skill wise in hurling and football but I had an athletic background so it kept me going.

“John O’Farrell in Borrisokane Athletics was great. I probably would haven’t got as far in sport without my athletic background.”

His running career saw him feature in Birmingham for a UK-Ireland Championships, winning a silver medal in a mixed relay team at the Community Games and also compete in the 80m hurdles at the same meeting.

Then the GAA called.

“Finbarr Daly, the local vet was involved in Borrisokane GAA, he would have been passing by our house every day. My Dad’s a farmer, he’d drop the medicines in over the wall to him.

“I’ve four brothers and a sister, he’d often see us when we were growing up, out playing on the lawn.

“If Wimbledon was on, it was tennis. If the golf was on, that’s what we were doing. So he would have seen us all the time playing.

“He was always wondering, ‘Jaysus are any of them made for playing GAA?’

“He probably said it to the parents and I got involved that way. It kicked off from that. I was a late enough starter at it but that’s how I stumbled my way into the GAA world.

“My parents, Joe and Lilian, were very good and always very encouraging, never put any pressure on. They started with me going to games, saying as long as I was enjoying it, stay playing it. That stayed with me until this year and had a big influence.”

Growing up in that part of the world, there was a glimpse of a hurling future. In September 2006 Austin was introduced off the bench for the All-Ireland U21 final replay in Thurles, injecting the Tipperary attack with fresh impetus as he rifled over a pair of points.

michael-fennelly-and-james-woodlock Michael Fennelly and James Woodlock in action in the 2006 All-Ireland U21 final. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Paddy Stapleton, Conor O’Brien, James Woodlock and Darragh Egan were amongst his Premier team-mates. Kilkenny’s teamsheet that day was a roll call of future stars – Joyce, Tennyson, Dalton, Fitzpatrick, Fennelly, Reid, Power and Hogan.

But by that stage Austin was embedded in the Tipperary football camp. A senior championship debut arrived in 2006. Kerry, in Killarney, as tough as it gets. Still, Tipp competed, trailing by two at the break, nine at full-time.

That was the start of a life attempting to break the glass ceiling in Munster football.

tom-osullivan-and-philip-austin Philip Austin (right) in action against Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan in 2010. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“There were some terrible days. Wexford beat us by 20 points one year; but anytime you ever lost was a low point. I wasn’t playing but Limerick in the Munster championship in 2019 was one.

“With the hip injury a couple of years ago I was laid up for seven, eight months, I thought then maybe this is it and I’m not going to go out on my own terms.

“I got to do that eventually which is great.

“And the bad days never seemed so bad that you’d throw your hat at it.”

He fights against the notion of it all being hardship, trying to climb up the rungs of the football ladder from a lowly spot.

“I had unbelievable drive and determination; I had to win something substantial. That kind of kept me going. I have to say that the management teams and players I met over the years were just great guys. They all came in and their sole aim was to drive it on. You wanted to do it for them as well.

“I was enjoying my football. I’d say I could have been seven or eight years in without having even thought about it. I didn’t even notice it going by.

“There were many years I was further away from winning something than being close to it. But I just stuck with it. Sometimes you can’t explain it; it’s just being in the right place at the right time.”

2016 felt like one of those seasons, a series of vibrant experiences as they travelled deep into the summer, reaching an All-Ireland semi-final.

“It was one of the greatest years because we came from absolutely nowhere. We surprised Cork, first time in 70-odd years we’d beaten them. We announced ourselves on the scene and it was just the run after. Lost the Munster final, then the Derry and Galway games were just pure magic, people running down onto the pitch after.

philip-austin-and-kevin-ohalloran-and-martin-dunne-celebrate Philip Austin (centre) with team-mates Kevin O'Halloran and Martin Dunne after beating Galway in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We tried not to talk so much about ’16 because it’s very hard to build after when you’re constantly referring back to it. We hadn’t won anything but we were getting a lot of praise and accolades. We had to stop talking about it.”

And then last November, Munster SFC final day, came the reward for hanging in there. Austin came on in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the 71st minute, the last Tipperary sub introduced against Cork.

With his first touch of the ball, he gathered the rebound after goalkeeper Evan Comerford’s ’45 struck the upright, and slotted a shot over the bar.

That was Tipperary’s 17th and final point scored on the day they were crowned Munster senior champions for the first time in 85 years.

“I often think teams when they’ve won something that from a distance out, it’s like their name is on the cup,” says Austin.

“Like Liverpool in the Champions League back in ’05, sometimes you just know when a team is destined for it. I just felt that last year, everything lined up.

“I’ll die a happy man now anyway after it.

“I know it was disappointing the crowds weren’t there but at the same time we probably got to spend more time with the team we had soldiered with all those years.”

philip-austin-and-jimmy-feehan-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Philip Austin (centre) celebrates with his Tipperary team-mates after the Munster football final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

One of those he had spent years in the trenches with was Brian Fox. From their particular group of long-serving Tipperary stalwarts, they were the two still around to savour the breakthrough.

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“Brian’s nearly there as long as I am. I was in college in UL with him, we travelled for three or four years for training. He just had the same passion I had, he absolutely loves the game. I was delighted for him as well because I know how much it means to him and he had near misses with underage teams.

“I was delighted especially for any of the lads that had been there a good few years and they know these are special moments.”

But as glorious as that day was, now feels the right time to go.

He got his hip operated on in 2017 and when returning for check-ups to the Whitfield Clinic in Waterford, his surgeon Patrick Carton would remind him that the injury needed to be monitored.

He might have had the energy for a couple more years on the inter-county treadmill but finishing up crocked wasn’t an inviting prospect. What’s 17 years when he had 15 on the board already?

Life off the pitch was also something to consider. He got married to Maggie last Christmas. The day job is a PE and Geography teacher in Killina. He’s launching a new business in June with PA Recovery Rooms in Athlone, a suite that focuses on sports recovery, wellness and injury prevention.

“I want to get that off the ground and have time for that as well. I want to have bit more time for family as well. I’ve made sacrifices for long enough.

“Someone asked me recently,’What are you going to do now?’

“I said, ‘Well I’m after freeing up Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday already, so I might try to get the golf handicap down from 20 to 19 over the summer!’

“Look it’s going to be different.”

Helping out more with Borrisokane GAA is another aim that triggered this decision. He didn’t want to be wrecked and unable to play club games in a couple of years. Coaching also interests him, every Friday afternoon on the way home he stops in to take GAA sessions with the children of Scoil Mhuire primary school in the town.

And for an area consumed by hurling, he was always backed as he pursued his football ambitions.

“It’s a hurling club but they were unbelievably supportive. I was going off playing football and coming back to them and trying to get up to speed playing hurling.

“But they were always very good, players and coaches alike. Never put pressure on me, always happy for me to be doing what I was doing

“I’d be thankful to them for that.”

michael-quinlivan-and-philip-austin-celebrate Michael Quinlivan and Philip Austin celebrate the 2016 Munster semi-final win over Cork. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

******

When Austin hit the pitch two weeks ago, the sight as he looked around confirmed his suspicion.

A group north of 40 players assembled to kick-start a season, a sign that Tipperary football is in a healthy place.

“I said to myself, ‘God this is some change from when I first walked out there and there was only nine or ten of us for most of the year.’

“We had come a long way. I knew in my heart and soul this was the way to go.

“I remember myself and Brian Fox were on the way back to Limerick one day, we were still in UL at the time, we counted that at that stage we had played with over 150 different players around Tipp.

“So I’d say at this stage I must be over the 300 mark. I nearly have a link to some person in every club around the county, which is a very nice thing to have as well.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. I made great friends.”

And he had a great run.

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First published today at 07.00

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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