Tipperary see off Antrim in qualifiers
Tipperary 0-10 Antrim 0-08: And on they go. Tipperary's senior footballers are on the cusp of a historic All-Ireland SFC quarter-final appearance.
Just 70 minutes away, but next weekend's Round 4 qualifier against beaten Ulster finalists Down will represent their toughest test to date on a glorious back-door run.
Offaly, Wexford and Antrim were teams that Tipperary knew plenty about. They were Division 3 opponents this year, but Division 1 class is now coming down the tracks.
Whether Tipp win or not, it has still been a remarkable season. Running Kerry to six points in the Munster quarter-final was no mean feat, considering what the Kingdom did to Tyrone on Saturday.
And for the first time since 1998, Tipp's senior footballers have won three championship matches in the same season. They might even eclipse the hurlers at this rate. On second thoughts, maybe not. The real pity is that more people won't get off their backsides to support the footballers. There were 2,563 spectators in Thurles on Saturday, but the predominant colour in the New Stand was Saffron.
In defence of the absent hordes, €20 for a Saturday qualifier is quite steep. It should also be noted that some Tipp folk forked out to watch the minor, U-21 and senior hurlers in action within the last eight days.
Ultimately, manager Peter Creedon and his boys will just get on with it - with their latest battle fought yesterday against local fixtures-makers who had decreed that a number of players should play for their clubs less than 24 hours after the Antrim tie.
As Creedon noted, they "dug it out" again on Saturday - a week after seeing off highly rated Wexford. And, as boss Liam 'Baker' Bradley admitted, Antrim had travelled with real confidence, having defeated Galway in their previous outing. But the midweek withdrawal of captain Aodhan Gallagher for personal reasons and Antrim's steadfast refusal to deviate from their ultra-defensive game plan were factors in this defeat. Creedon reflected: "We hadn't encountered anything like that defensive structure before. I don't think you'll ever win a game playing that way."
Bradley later revealed that Tipperary had turned the ball over 30 times, a clear indicator of the home team's work rate. And in the closing minutes, they found the vital scores from sub Brian Mulvihill and six-point hero Alan Maloney to nudge two clear, after the sides had been level three times in the second half.
Antrim could have snatched victory in the final minute when Michael McCann blasted narrowly wide from 20 metres, but that would have been an injustice to Tipp, who registered 11 second-half wides.
At the break, they led by 0-6 to 0-4, having been four points clear twice in the opening half. Maloney was on fire early on and Antrim didn't score until the 18th minute. They would go another 14 minutes without a score and needed a brace of James Loughrey points before half-time to stay in touch.
Tipp could, and should, have been further clear, but captain Philip Austin missed a glorious goal chance in first-half stoppage-time. But they eventually came through and Creedon was almost struggling to come to terms with the team's achievements.
"We'd be pinching ourselves if you told us that we'd win three qualifier games," he admitted. "We've beaten three Division 3 teams really -- we should be capable of doing that. And we had a good performance against Kerry as well. We're doing well but it's a big jump next week against a Division 1 team. We'll take it as it comes now."
Bradley, meanwhile, was busy dealing with questions about his immediate future. The Derry native has been in charge of Antrim since October 2008 and replied: "It's not the time or the place for that. I'm very, very disappointed. We've been working hard with the lads. They started on weights programmes in October last year and while they're improving steadily, this is not the time or the place for me to be making any decisions.
"At the end of the day, football is all about the players. It's not about managers - managers come and go. I've no doubt that whether I'm there or not next year, Antrim will still be a force."
Scorers - Tipperary: A Maloney 0-6 (3f), G Hannigan, D Leahy, M Quinlivan (1f), B Mulvihill 0-1 each. Antrim: J Loughrey, T McCann (1 '45') 0-2 each, S McDonagh, M McCann, K Brady, M Magill 0-1 each.
TIPPERARY - P Fitzgerald 7; A Morrissey 7, P Codd 7, C McDonald 8; B Fox 7, R Kiely 7, A Campbell 6; G Hannigan 7, H Coghlan 6; R Ryan 5, A Maloney 8, D Leahy 7; M Quinlivan 7, P Acheson 9, P Austin 7. Subs: B Mulvihill 7 for Ryan (h-t), C Sweeney for Austin (64).
ANTRIM - C Kerr 6; J Crozier 6, K O'Boyle 6, R Johnson 5; T Scullion 5, M Sweeney 5, A Healey 7; S McDonagh 7, M McCann 6; J Loughrey 8, K Brady 6, C Murray 5; K Niblock 5, M Johnson 6, T McCann 7. Subs: M Armstrong 6 for R Johnson (h-t), M Magill 7 for Niblock (55), R Murray 5 for C Murray (60), O Gallagher for T McCann (69).
Ref - E Kinsella (Laois).