Down travel to Thurles to take on Tipperary side at Tailteann Cup crossroads

Stuck in the middle. StevenO'Brien up against Derry's Chrissy McKaigue and Ciaran McFaul
Stuck in the middle. StevenO'Brien up against Derry's Chrissy McKaigue and Ciaran McFaul

LOSING to Meath last weekend means Tipperary have to beat Down in Thurles on Sunday to have any chance of qualifying automatically for the Tailteann Cup quarter-finals.

Tipp took a 20-point hammering from defending All-Ireland champions Kerry in the Munster Championship and were then routed by the Royals last weekend and Down's win over Waterford means that victory for the Mournemen will leave them and Meath (assuming they beat Waterford) in a shoot-out for first and second.  

Tipp could manage only 11 points against Meath and Steven O’Brien got two of those scores. The Ballina clubman was an All-Ireland winner with the Tipperary hurlers in 2016 and a Munster Championship winner with his county’s footballers back in 2020.

He is one of the few survivors from the side that shocked Cork (who had beaten Kerry at the semi-final stage) on that momentous November night but things have changed since then and some of the Down players could relate to Tipperary’s woes this year.

The county has won just one game. They lost six and drew with Longford on the way to relegation to Division Four and victory against Waterford in the first round of Munster was followed by that thrashing from the Kingdom.

“From our panel in 2020, we’ve lost over 20 players,” said O’Brien.

“If you were to take 20 players off Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Galway… they’d be under pressure too. So we’re in a bit of a rebuild at the moment. It’s not just numbers, it’s key players. Michael Quinlivan, Conor Sweeney, Alan Campbell, Bill Maher... All those lads would start for any county team.

“It’s hard to replace that calibre of player but that doesn’t take away from the effort the lads are putting in who are there now. You see them every night at training, they’re really getting after it.

“It’s just going to take a bit of time. But because of the bodies we’ve lost, we’re back down in Division Four and we’re in the Tailteann Cup. That’s probably where we are the moment. That’s just being realistic.”

It’s quite a fall from hitting 3-13 (in a losing cause) against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final less than three years’ ago to battling in the Tailteann Cup. Cavan (also All-Ireland semi-finalists in 2020) are competing in the second tier too and O’Brien says the competition is exactly what Tipperary need at this point.

“I think the Tailteann Cup gives us an opportunity to play games and win games,” he said.

“Everyone in the Tailteann Cup will see games where they won’t fear anyone. I think that’s the attitude you have to have. You can put the league and the Munster championship aside now. We’re in a new tournament and looking forward to it and we’re excited by it.

“I prefer the structure of the competition. Last year was effectively a back door because it was straight into a knock-out whereas now you’re getting three matches.

“That’s what the Tailteann Cup is supposed to be. It’s giving the tier two counties more games. By putting them into a straight knockout last year, you didn’t get many more games if things didn’t go well.

“That’s what we want; we want competitive games and lots of them.”

O’Brien’s home patch of north Tipperary is traditional hurling country and the 28-year-old was part of the Tipp hurling panel for two years before he threw his lot in with the footballers. He says he’s “football all the way now”.

“Look, at the end of 2015 I got the call to go in with the senior hurlers,” he explained.

“I saw it as a chance I couldn’t really turn down because, if I look back in 10 years’ time I’ll always be wondering: ‘What if?’

“I went in, I put my lot in with the hurling for two years. It didn’t work out, personally. I didn’t achieve the goals I wanted to achieve. But I look back with no regrets about my decision or what I put into it.

“But because I put everything into it, I was happy enough with it. But now I’m back 100 per cent behind the football.”