Ryan charts Tipp's journey from that 'horrible' June place to promise of September
SEPTEMBER is upon us and Tipperary are counting down the days to an All-Ireland final with Kilkenny. Giddy anticipation is in the Thurles ether. Hard to believe this is the same place that was convulsing last June at a third consecutive championship defeat for Eamon O'Shea's then-embattled management team.
Tipp had just been caught in the home straight by Limerick and the group, according to assistant manager Michael Ryan, were "in a horrible place. You lose your first-round game and it brings you to places that ordinarily you wouldn't like to go.
"But maybe you have to go there to figure out exactly what you're doing, where you fit in, and whether everyone has bought into the idea - where we're trying to go on this journey.
"From that perspective I think it galvanised guys. We really felt it was huge setback, but we also felt we hadn't worked this hard - it was effectively two years' work on the line, literally - and if we'd shipped a defeat to Galway here in Thurles you wouldn't be talking to us. That's an absolute certainty. I don't think the county would want us."
That's a critical self-assessment but it's also on the money. A summer losing streak of four-from-four would never have cut the ice in such a demanding county.
"We hadn't achieved what we set out to achieve," Ryan points out. "You question yourself, you ask are we just making mistake after mistake, are we bringing the guys in the right direction? We believe we are and we still believe we are."
Tipperary knew they had been beaten by a "very good" Limerick team, one they hadn't under-estimated, and just a "few wrong options" at critical times proved fatal.
"But we didn't collapse," Ryan stresses. "It was none of those things. A collapse is an awful thing because the self-doubt becomes limitless. We weren't in the despair of 'What are we doing here?' It was just horrible."
It threatened to become more horrible still when trailing Galway by six points in the 51st minute. Since that watershed moment, however, Tipp's summer has soared into orbit: they won those fateful last 20 minutes by a staggering 15 points (for a nine-point victory) and followed up with a trio of double-digit wins over Offaly (17 points), Dublin (13) and Cork (10). Ergo, over the past three-and-a-bit matches, they are 55 points in credit.
It may have echoes of 2010, when Tipp were hammered in Munster by Cork only to take the scenic route to All-Ireland glory. But Ryan, then a selector under Liam Sheedy, cautions: "I wouldn't overdo the similarities because the two teams were in different places. I think the road map became similar but it comes back down to belief.
"In the aftermath of the Limerick game I never wavered about the team; neither did Eamon (O'Shea) or Paudie (O'Neill) ... if we had doubts and started chopping and changing or bringing in guys willy-nilly, that would send the wrong signal through the team."
And now for the Cats. Same pairing as 2010, but otherwise there is no disguising Tipp's poor recent record against Kilkenny.
"Well it is a fact," Ryan muses. "You can choose to look at it anyway you want. You can make a mountain of it and decide that if you were Paddy Power you would know exactly how it will pan out. I honestly believe that there's no such thing as a repeat game. Each game is a unique thing.
"And I also happen to believe that the team with the greatest desire will win. You can control that. That's a variable that's up to you to take care of."
He then concludes: "Sport is littered with stories of teams achieving great things. We did it in '09 and came up just short. We did it in '10 in what, I'd say, was a poorer match. I'd argue that Kilkenny turned it back around in '11. And '12 (alluding to Tipperary's 18-point semi-final collapse) was a shambles."
Two years on, they look in a far better place ... but Sunday will tell all.