By PRO Joe Bracken
A jewel in the crown of Tipperary GAA, Semple Stadium in 2018 has once again been centre stage as the famous arena played host to breath-taking action the result of which left many hearts elated and some closer to home unfortunately even a little deflated.
But before some of the events of 2018 are recalled perhaps it’s best to start by paying tribute to all the quiet and unassuming groundsmen who toiled before, sowing seeds upon which today’s successes were made. With minimum of fuss, never seeking recognition, their diligence and honesty of effort can only be marvelled at, if the field was right they were happy and that’s all that mattered.
Many dedicated groundsmen and staff down through the years have all nurtured and cared for the hallowed sod, including Bobby Mockler, Jim Hickey, Jimmy Purcell and Philly Butler to name but a few of more recent times. Each in his term of residence took exceptional pride in looking after Semple Stadium. As a result it has and continues to be an iconic venue for all Gaels and rightly stands proud in the chronicles of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
Below is a photograph of Jim Hickey checking the net before the Centenary All-Ireland Final of 1984, (picture credit, courtesy Ray McManus, Sportsfile). Studious to the cause as ever, Jim was observed by Seamus O’Doherty on the Thursday before the 1982 Munster Final, all alone, resodding the Killinan End square. At his disposal was a spade, wheelbarrow and some loose sods, an unsung hero indeed.
Times and methods of how grounds are looked after now have changed dramatically in recent times with a more scientific approach required due in part to many contributing factors. But one constant has never changed and that is the honour and pride each of the respective groundsmen have and had in looking after the Field of Legends.
To those who have gone before, those present and those still to come, we salute and thank you for effort of unbridled love for soil so precious that is rightly revered by many.
And so to the current custodians who had all in order for the first of this year’s action which took place on the last weekend in January as Moy and An Ghaeltacht made the trip to Semple for the AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Club Football semi-final. It’s seldom current football legends grace the treasured sod, but when Seán Cavanagh, Marc Ó Sé and co arrive to Semple Stadium it makes the occasion that bit extra special.
With each weekend in February catering for games the grounds men had to be at the top of their game at a difficult time of the year keeping the surface in the best condition possible.
So on a cold crisp Saturday night a week on from the intermediate club semi-final, following the Allianz hurling league fixture between Tipperary and Waterford, the grounds staff were out beavering away while player and spectator alike had more than likely cosied up in warmer surroundings. Busily tending to the sod, they stayed on into the early hours of Sunday morning ensuring all would be ready for Tipperary’s Allianz football league fixture against Roscommon that same day.
It was a while since the Rossies had been in town and while they may have marvelled at the splendid surroundings, the team snatched victory at the death to inflict what became a serious dent in Tipp’s promotion ambitions.
The action reverted to the AIB club championships on February 10th when Cuala and Liam Mellows fought it out in the senior hurling semi-final, with the Dublin lads triumphant on their march towards All-Ireland glory.
Another Saturday night match followed and this time the Tipperary senior hurlers played Wexford under lights before the largest crowd of the year so far, as 8,358 watched Jason Forde (Silvermines) shoot 2-9 in a man of the match performance, Tipp over the line with two goals to spare. The ship was steady with no apparent hint of danger.
The Meath footballers came to Thurles the following week eager to lay down a marker to Liam Kearns’ men, but Tipp were having none of it. On a pristine night under a starlit sky, Semple Stadium twinkled and sparkled to the kick of the moonlight ball as Tipp showed their resolve while those brave enough to face the cold watched from the stand as Tipp closed out the game with 1-5 to spare.
Little did we know what was to come by the middle of the week as the ‘beast from the east’ arrived on our shores causing a serious downturn in fortunes for all. Semple Stadium like everywhere was laid siege to the elements, yet the blanket of snow across the lush playing surface on February 28th seemed to illuminate its own surroundings with regal tranquility.
Games off nationwide; the resultant break in league fixtures certainly didn’t help the Premier cause and was most definitely a contributing factor towards the woes that befell our senior hurlers in their Munster campaign.
But true to form the Semple Stadium jewel soon sparkled again as we knew it would and played host to a Tipp double header as the hurlers played Cork and the footballers played Louth on March 11th. Without the Trojan work of those on the front line, thoughts of a double fixture for many would have seemed doubtful following the weather event, but for Dave Hanley and his crew, it was only another piece of the yearly jigsaw that needed resolving. Positive results on both fronts from the two games had all and sundry happy. It is also interesting to note that Michael Quinlivan (Clonmel Commercials) and Bill Maher (Kilsheelan-Kilcash) were the Tipp goal scorers in both back to back football victories in Semple, men at ease it seems on favoured home soil.
The end of March witnessed a humdinger of a hurling league semi-final, which required extra time, as Tipperary and Limerick refused to yield in the normal regulation period. This was a result which promised much hope for the home side but alas yielded little on different soil when an indifferent second half put paid to hopes of a positive outcome.
April being the ‘quiet’ month on the intercounty front saw little action of note, though the Tipp minor footballers did play Kerry on the 11th at home.
But if nothing else, we are by and large optimistic supporters and thought the recent blip on the hurling radar would be rectified by championship. Little did we know?
It was then that the summer heat was replicated on the fields of play and in all its majesty Semple Stadium opened its arms to welcome thousands as it played host to thriller after thriller during a scorching and dazzling spell of action and weather.
The Tipp senior footballers saw off Waterford but were out of sorts against Cork which ended their Munster campaign by the end of May.
As the hurling championship ignited this now at last was the real deal and how the magnificent arena lived up to the billing. The passion and flair of championship action is what Semple Stadium is about, it revives the heart and nourishes the soul. It’s the field where players transcend mere mortals and deliver colossal feats on the greatest stage of all. Semple Stadium is that stage where a countless cast get the opportunity to shine and all are welcome.
Unfortunately, Tipperary’s premature exit on the hurling front when losing a nerve wrecking encounter against Clare in early June was Semple Stadium’s gain as it and the excitement of championship action rolled back the year’s to recapture and rekindle the glory days of what we grew up listening to. Tales of mighty men and mighty battles in this GAA cauldron, where no quarter was asked or given, had conjured up images of giants within the heat of combat long gone we thought. Now at last it was our time and a chance to build dreams for the future focusing on giants of this era.
The brightest light of all for the Premier County in June came on the 21st, when Liam Cahill’s U21 side produced a magnificent display to dethrone Limerick, the reigning All-Ireland champions. Hopes of hurling success were not lost yet.
Two days later with the pitch once again immaculate the Mayo football bandwagon rolled into town as the men from the west made the long trip to play Tipp in round 2 of the football qualifiers. Tipperary played superb that day in the tremendous heat and deserved more but it wasn’t to be. An unexpected goal caught the home side on the hop as the Tipp footballers joined their hurling counterparts in the shadow of the action for the remainder of the campaign. Still though the chance to see men of the calibre of Lee Keegan, the O’Shea brothers Aidan and Seamus and the lively Andy Moran form another link in the chain of greats to grace the Field of Legends this year offered some comfort.
On Munster Final day, the crowds flocked to the hurling mecca when the largest crowd of the year, 45,364, paid in to see the Rebel county triumph over Clare in a pulsating clash. Earlier the Tipperary minors had restored a much needed boost for the jersey as they romped to a 40th title for the county with no shortage of pep in their step.
Though the welcome yet intense heatwave tried its best to catch groundsmen off guard ahead of the Munster Final, this was swiftly dealt with. Thanks to the foresight and visionaries of previous management, Semple Stadium has its own water source and this was significantly aided by tanker after tanker of water delivery to keep a thirsty playing surface in excellent condition.
And one week later when Leinster came calling, Thurles once again delivered in another first for the stadium as the replayed Leinster provincial final was accommodated in customary fashion adding to the wonderful spectacle that it was. This was a unique honour for the Thurles ground by hosting the replay between Galway and Kilkenny due to the unavailability of Croke Park. Below is the Bob O’Keeffe Cup being closely guarded by Seamus O’Doherty, VIP steward and GAA historian of note, before the action got under way, (picture credit and courtesy Bridget Delaney).
And the gift that keeps on giving still excelled as Semple Stadium hosted firstly the All-Ireland hurling quarter final clash between Kilkenny and Limerick. It then followed up with another replay in the semi-final between Galway and Clare. Both were marvellous spectacles ensuring rave reviews for the stadium and its pitch.
The ladies played their part too as the senior camogie semi-finals went ahead in Thurles on August 18th.
September then saw action of a different nature as Féile Classical made its debut many years after the original Féile had once graced the famous amphitheatre. With stage construction and allowing time for the ground to recover post-concert, September was not available for games as it gave rebirth to a favoured progeny, this time however, with a classical twist.
Two glorious nights of live entertainment showcased to a new and appreciative audience what this gem of a landmark stadium can deliver.
The band selections were key to its success and were Stunning by name and stunning by performance. Féile Classical also proved it is possible to host an artisan event in a stadium setting. Proof of its success can only be judged by appreciation and demand. In both areas Semple Stadium delivered, so much so that the 2019 event is already pencilled in.
It was October then before the ground saw hurling and football action back between the white lines of play. The Tipperary Water senior and hurling football championships reached their pinnacle and what drama they unfolded. In the Seamus Ó Riain final, Burgess claimed a first senior hurling title while Clonoulty-Rossmore delivered on the greatest stage of all to win the Dan Breen Cup, bridging a 21 year gap by lifting the cup for the fourth time in the club’s history.
A field where all are welcome and what better place for stars of tomorrow to hone their skill than hurling county final day as children of all ages went out for a customary half time puck around on the Semple sod.
A week later Moyle Rovers captured their eight senior football title while Moyne-Templetuohy collected the intermediate title following extra time drama.
Mid November saw the AIB Munster Senior Club final take place as Semple Stadium played host to another high intensity match as Ballygunner (Waterford) put paid to the hopes of Na Piarsaigh (Limerick).
276,919 passed through the gates to watch the games this year, with the Féile Classical attendances swelling those numbers to almost 300,00 which emphasises how much Semple Stadium has developed as an industry in itself and also in supporting the local economy.
As the curtain came down on a fabulous year for this wonderful ground, it was fitting that the Cumann na mBunscol football finals should be played over two days as the Tipperary stars of tomorrow get their taste and feel for this iconic ground. One day hopefully, they too will become giants in outstanding glory on the greatest field of all.
The above is only a flavour of what goes on in Semple Stadium throughout any given year. The Tipperary senior hurling team train there two and maybe three times a week from late April to the end of their championship campaign depending on stadium availability. Likewise the Tipperary senior footballers are accommodated when requested, along with inter-county challenge matches, as well as the Cumann na mBunscol hurling finals. Its picture positive in honour of those past whose vision and inspiration laid the foundations of today’s success and long may it prosper.
Down through the decades Semple Stadium has been admired and on the wish list for thousands of supporters to visit and attend games so that they too can witness first-hand the unique atmosphere and character it espouses. Without those spectators the stadium would not breathe life. To all spectators, thank you. With club and county pride at stake, your enthusiastic and passionate participation when the hurling and football gladiators enter the arena to do battle lifts the spirit to another level. The players thrive on it, Semple Stadium resonates it and its then that legends are made and dreams become reality.
To all involved past and present, the current management under the stewardship of Con Hogan and Tom Maher, Stadium Director David Morgan, to head grounds man Dave Hanley and their loyal personnel and workers, all GAA supporters salute you.
In conjunction with the wonderful support and cooperation of local residents, 2018 has been another outstanding year for Semple Stadium. Each take a deserved bow and congratulations on a year of tremendous success for and on the Field of Legends.