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'They always struck me with their maturity and leadership' - Tipp's hurling class of 2010 still star

Today’s county senior hurling finals are another example of the influence of Tipperary’s U21 winners from a decade ago.

Noel McGrath continues to be central to the Tipperary hurling cause.
Noel McGrath continues to be central to the Tipperary hurling cause.
Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

ON THE MORNING after the 2010 All-Ireland senior final as Tipperary was engulfed in celebration, Ken Hogan started to think about the assignment he faced in a decider.

It was six days until his U21 team were due to meet Galway. With such a crossover of players between the setups, there was always the prospect of preparations being impacted.

Early that Monday in Burlington Hotel he saw a group of his leading lights, who had seen their reputations soar after the previous day’s heroics against Kilkenny, head to the pool for a recovery session.

He was reassured then that they would reset and start to focus on their underage encounter. Everything that followed that week reinforced that thought in Hogan’s mind.

“Mikey Cahill graduated on the Friday before the U21 All-Ireland in UCC after winning the senior previous Sunday.

“He said, ‘Ken I’m graduating, my family are coming down, it doesn’t look good for getting to Friday night training.’

“I said, ‘Mikey you’re graduating, it’s a big time in your life, don’t worry about it’.

“But the amazing thing happened was I came into the pitch and Mikey was there pucking around before the warm-up. He said he was talking to the father and mother about it and after gradutating, they’d said, ‘Get up to Thurles as quickly as possible, this is an All-Ireland’.

“That shows their maturity and you can see where the leadership credentials come from.”

Fast forward to 2020 and their influence shows no signs of abating. As Liam Sheedy gathers his current squad and gears up for the November defence of their title, a core of that 2010 U21 side remain central to the cause.

The impact is not just restricted to there. Today Noel McGrath becomes the latest member hoping to steer his club to lift the Dan Breen Cup. Standing in Loughmore-Castleiney’s path is Kiladangan. One of their figureheads is Joe Gallagher, who came on for McGrath in that destruction of Galway, and a player Hogan holds in high regard.

When the suggestion was first raised with Hogan about taking the managerial reins of that Tipperary side, he did not rush to accept it. His sideline roles with Tipperary teams had not been hugely successful.

“I had to think about it a lot because obviously I had been involved with the senior team, coach with Nicky and then I was manager myself. Got a short term there. The county board came back to me and said that maybe they’d regrets about my situation and would I consider getting involved with this 21 group.

“I wasn’t happy until I knew my family were happy, I was content with doing it and I wanted my own backroom team, people that I knew personally.”

He drafted in Tommy Dunne, William Maher and TJ Connolly. The assembly of that brains trust left him content. Their coaching prowess continues to be witnessed. Dunne is one of Sheedy’s right-hand men in the current senior setup. Today Maher will be at the helm as Cuala attempt to land the Dublin senior title, Hogan has guided St Rynagh’s in Offaly to the semi-final stage, they face Birr next Sunday.

“All great pedigree and all great Tipperary men. The four of us got on like a house on fire even though there was a generation gap between them and me. We remain great friends and keep in contact constantly about sport and things like that. That whole thing gelled. Your backroom team is the strength of your group and the trust and loyalty you have.”

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padraic-maher-raises-the-u21-trophy Padraic Maher the All-Ireland U21 trophy in 2010. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Hogan knew of the ambition that county board chiefs Barry O’Brien and John Costigan possessed at the time, along with their desire for that group to be transitioned successfully to the senior grade. They nearly got caught at the start. It took a late Seamus Hennessy goal to rescue a draw in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and they escaped from Cork with a two-point extra-time win. From there the season exploded and culminated in that devastating showing that ripped Galway, who fielded a bunch of future senior winners, apart. Tipperary posted 5-22 on the board, had 25 points to spare and produced the exhibition at a Semple Stadium venue that heaved with home support.

“It was a super evening. We had the luck of the draw, the first All-Ireland U21 to be played in Thurles. It was in front of our own supporters, a crazy crowd at it, 25,000 or so. Just the passion and belief it all came out that evening in a superb performance.”

Seven days previously had seen Padraic, Brendan and Patrick Maher, McGrath and Cahill all start when Tipperary dismantled Kilkenny’s hitherto unstoppable machine, while Hennessy came on.

That quintet all started as well in 2016 when Tipperary took down Kilkenny in another final and by that juncture they had been joined by James Barry and John O’Dwyer.
August this Premier generation’s third Liam MacCarthy Cup success arrived. Brendan and Padraic Maher, McGrath and O’Dwyer again started while Barry was a member of the squad. Bonner Maher would have joined them but for rupturing his cruciate last June against Limerick, Cahill’s career has been similarly derailed by a severe knee injury. 

They have collectively succeeded and individually thrived as well. As a measure of that consider their combined All-Star haul of 17 – Padraic Maher (6), Brendan Maher & McGrath (3 apiece), Patrick Maher (2), Barry, O’Dwyer and Cahill (1). There have been Young Hurler of the Year awards and All-Ireland captaincy honours.

The recent acclaim for their consistency has rang loud but previously the doubts floated around after a few turbulent seasons in the wake of 2010.

“There were question marks,” admits Hogan.

“At one stage in 2010 we thought things were going to work out in the immediate short term but we got enough slagging about that, things didn’t work out. We were in the doldrums for another few years. It’s a tribute to the lads that they hung in there and stood tall when it counted. They could have been disheartened but the lads have had good innings and they’re not finished yet. They’re giving it everything they have.

“They always struck me with their maturity and leadership. What they wanted to achieve. Even though they had minor and senior All-Irelands at that stage, they wanted their U21 so much.”

Their mastery is not just confined to the national arena, back at home they also illustrate their worth. Padraic Maher was a figurehead as Thurles Sarsfields ruled over the last decade, Brendan Maher inspired Borris-Ileigh to triumph last November and Noel McGrath has been a chief architect in Loughmore’s best days across football and hurling.

That trend continues this weekend as Tipperary’s primary senior hurling trophies are handed out. There was disappointment for Hogan’s native Lorrha-Dorrha yesterday in the Seamus Ó Riain decider, his sons Brian and Cian both in action against Mullinahone, along with nephew Conor. But the return of Bonner to full flight in recent weeks has been a rousing boost for them.

“I never doubted he’d come back. He’s a teetotaller. He’s in superb shape, he’s huge pride in his physical appearance and from that perspective he was prepared to put in the long lonely hours and the grind. It was a setback but fair play to him, he survived it.”

It is little surprise to him to witness McGrath and Gallagher spearheading their respective teams who will contend for the biggest prize this afternoon in Thurles. Loughmore are on the double trail, Kiladangan searching for a major breakthrough after a couple of near misses in recent times.

“The McGraths are just essential to the Loughmore cause. Noel was always a special talent. I mean he was born in December, a couple of days before the January deadline as they say, which meant he was a year younger than everybody else and yet he still played at U16 for Tipperary minors and then Loughmore when they won their only Munster club championship. Then graduated on to Tipperary senior, an All-Ireland there at 19.

“His pedigree was always there. He’s had his setbacks and how mature he was in how dealt with the illness. Everybody admires what he’s achieved as a hurler but more importantly the obstacles he’s overcome to play at the highest level again.

“Joe is their spiritual leader, Kiladangan’s big leader. He’s an outstanding record playing at centre-back for Kiladangan at underage level. It’s probably his best position at six but because of the make up of the Kiladangan team to have a leader, in attack he’s the ball winner up there. He’s the man that breaks the tackles and makes the scores.

“Himself and his brother Tadhg are two top class players, an unbelievable character and leadership. He’s set the example for the rest of the younger Kiladangan players. A huge role model there. He’s been a mentor for them at underage level as well, I’ve seen him on the sideline with Kiladangan teams. He’ll be going all out Sunday to get his first county senior medal. I think that’s his sole aim.”

Last Friday week marked the 10th anniversary of that evening of U21 glory for Tipperary. The debate back then, like it is with all decorated underage sides, is who could push on and continue to make their mark at higher levels?

In a mulitude of ways, locally and nationally, that Tipperary group have achieved plenty.

A decade on and their hurling presence continues to be felt.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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