HIS FOCUS IS trained on football matters in Mullingar next Saturday but George Hannigan will monitor hurling events in Thurles next Sunday with interest.
The Shannon Rovers player has established himself as a fixture in the Tipperary midfield in recent years, integral to the wonderful All-Ireland qualifier ride they have enjoyed over the past month that sees them facing Down on Saturday with the prize of being ranked in the top eight in the country at stake.
Yet before his ascension to the senior inter-county game, Hannigan shone on the college’s hurling stage. In 2005 he was left half-back on a St Flannan’s side, trained by Clare legend Jamesie O’Connor, that lifted the All-Ireland crown in a thrilling final against Kilkenny aristocrats St Kieran’s.
Seamus Hickey, central to the Limerick defence in next Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final, was a team mate on that occasion with Kilkenny trio TJ Reid, Paddy and Richie Hogan lining up in opposition. Current Clare duo James McInerney and Colin Ryan were also part of the Ennis outfit’s setup.
“It was a great experience to play at that level,” says Hannigan. “You’d still be in touch with players the odd time and a good few of us have gone on to play at senior level for our counties which is great to see. I still playing hurling with the club but football is the main focus now.”
Hannigan’s club is perched on the north-west corner of the county, skirting the borders of Clare and Galway in a traditionally hurling-mad region. Yet Gaelic football has consumed his interest, having made his senior debut for the county in 2006 and being part of the Tipperary U21 sides that just fell short at the final hurdle in Munster in 2007 against Cork and 2008 against Kerry.
His father Joe is chairman of the Friends of Tipperary Football and the concept of entering a North Tipperary divisional outfit in the county’s senior championship was his brainchild. Thus the Thomas McDonaghs combination outfit was born at the end of 2006 and last winter they claimed a historic first county senior title with George and his younger brother Alan both involved.
Progress at inter-county level has ensued this season in remarkable fashion as Tipperary strung together qualifier wins despite suffering a torrid league campaign that resulted in relegation and seeing manager John Evans step down in March. Peter Creedon was ushered in as interim replacement and Tipperary have subsequently prospered.
“A lot of us had worked with Peter at minor and U21 so there was no major introduction when he took over,” says Hannigan. “He has a good way of looking at football, training is very enjoyable and he’s very tactically minded. Things have not changed dramatically but it’s going well.”
Tipperary football manager Peter Creedon. Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Hannigan is in his seventh year in the Tipperary squad and it’s been a season of new experiences with three championship victories under their belt and they are preparing for their fifth summer of 2012. Tipperary have been earmarked as an emerging football county on the back of their wave of recent underage successes but actually translating that into something tangible at senior championship level has eluded them.
“We always felt we were capable of doing things but could never get two wins on the bounce,” reveals Hannigan. “The thinking amongst the players was that if we could do that, things would snowball and that’s how it’s turned out so far this summer. We got what we considered a very good scalp against Wexford and then kept that going against Antrim.
“Home advantage has been vital, if you look at the qualifier fixtures around the country, that trend has emerged. But we’re just really enjoying it. It makes a great chance from sitting at home in the summer watching these games on TV.”
Hannigan is a teacher in Askea Boys National School in Carlow Town after studying in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick where he won a Trench Cup medal in 2008 alongside Galway’s Gary Sice and Cork’s Patrick Kelly. Living in Portlaoise, he is returning to work in September following a career break which saw him hitting spots in South America, New Zealand and Australia during a travel stint last year.
At present his schedule revolves around football with pool sessions assisting the recovery this week from Tipperary’s win last Saturday over Antrim and bracing them for the upcoming battle with Down.
“It’s a difficult test,” says Hannigan. “We beat them in the Division 3 league final a few years ago but that was only after extra-time and their team has changed a lot since then. They’re a Division 1 team, were in an All-Ireland final two years ago and have some quality players. But there’s a good buzz in our squad and we’ve wanted a chance like this for so long.”