Not yet Tipp top but getting there slowly
EVEN by Tipperary's recent standards, it's been a weird year.
"Tipp in the dock" ran The Tipperary Star headline in the week after their first defeat to Limerick in Thurles for 41 years, provoking ire, loud and twofold.
For some, it was the accusation contained within that sparked annoyance.
Others felt the column itself was an unfair impingement on the private business of amateur sports people.
In shorthand, the piece held that Tipperary's players had embraced the task of sorrow-drowning a little too lustfully in Thurles on the evening and day-after-the-day-before their defeat, suggesting supporters were "very angry and questioning where Tipperary are going".
"It's natural that players might like to let their hair down after a high octane battle," the article, written by a respected local journalist, reasoned.
"But the optics are not good, especially considering that there have been real problems in the past with the so-called 'Monday club'. Limerick - defending Munster champions remember - had a Monday club too. They assembled early in UL to get the legs going again after the exertions of battle."
A couple of weeks later, just before Tipperary took on Galway in Thurles, Liam Sheedy went public with his belief that there were "careers at stake now".
Such was the importance of that game.
"It would have been the end of the road," admits former Tipp boss, Len Gaynor, now.
"But that's the way with these things. You dice with disaster and if you come out on the right side, you have big momentum and you have the experience of coming through a pressurised situation.
"There is no doubt that Tipp have good hurlers. But to be a team, you need to have all the different parts together. And you need momentum and confidence. They're not playing to the maximum of their ability … but they're getting there."
And the possible effects the 'Tipp in the dock' piece might have had on those allegedly standing in said dock?
"It might be a wake up call or it might have been a bit strong," Gaynor suggests. "I don't know the truth of the story.
"But at the same time, there was probably a bit of truth in it. And maybe it was a wake up call for the players. Nowadays, if you want to play at the top of your game, you've got to look after yourself properly.
"All the teams now, they do intensive training. It doesn't make sense to go and have nights out … late nights with a lot of alcohol.
"It doesn't make sense. It doesn't add up, given how long it takes the body to recover from that."
So from the precipice of ruination, they stand just a victory over Dublin this Sunday away from being spoken about as possible All-Ireland Champions.
Only in Tipp.
"Against Limerick, you felt there was an element of them thinking they would get through this without fighting for the ball enough," Gaynor points out.
"That seems to be a problem that they have at times," adds Gaynor.
In the Galway win, they outscored their opponents by 2-10 to 0-1 over the final gallop, an antidote to the negative perceptions of their character the team have attracted.
Afterwards, Eamon O'Shea said: "People should not judge players without really knowing them," yet he must have known that judgement would not have been in his favour had Tipp lost.
During his two year reign, the team have played two Munster Championship matches and lost both to Limerick.
They have played successive League finals against Kilkenny and been defeated both times.
And after last year's qualifier defeat to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, a loss to Galway would surely have ended O'Shea's tenure with a record of six major games and six major losses.
Yet a team that can enjoy such a quick boost to confidence levels can also surely see them decimated equally swiftly.
And as ever, a few key players remain utterly vital to this team's well-being.
Seamus Callanan has scored 5-23 of their 10-66 total or almost 40 per cent of their summer tally.
He is, though, arguably Tipp's second most important forward after 'Bonner' Maher, the seemingly unstoppable force wearing the number 11 jersey.
"As good as two men there down the centre," argues Gaynor.
"He tears all before him, takes ball, man, the whole lot with him. And he makes room for the other players to come in.
"He is the most vital man to Tipperary at the moment in the form that he's in. He's making all the room in there and making it very hard for defences to stop him.
"They don't know whether to go at him in twos or three or whether to stay off and mark the man he's going to throw the ball to.
"He has them in two minds. He's most important."
As will Tipp's attitude this weekend.
There probably isn't a Tipperary inter-county hurler past or present who would countenance losing to Dublin in Thurles.
That, of course, could work both ways.
"In modern times, you can lose to anyone," Gaynor insists.
"The old days are gone. I would be very, very wary of Dublin next Sunday. They didn't do themselves justice at all against Kilkenny. You can be sure that there's going to be a big kick back from that.
"And they are a very strong team. A big, physical team. And they will get in and upset Tipperary. There's no doubt about that. Tipp will have to be on their toes to beat them."