Friday 21 July 2017

Martin Breheny: Control of the western front vital for Galway

Kevin Walsh and his team remain far behind Mayo in the All-Ireland betting despite beating their rivals in the last two years. Photo: Sportsfile
Kevin Walsh and his team remain far behind Mayo in the All-Ireland betting despite beating their rivals in the last two years. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Kevin Walsh won't admit it publicly but he must find it irritating that despite Galway beating Mayo twice in a year, the general view remains that there are more likely to be green-and-red rather than maroon-and-white ribbons attached to the Sam Maguire Cup on September 17.

Mayo are fourth All-Ireland favourites at 11/1 behind Dublin (11/8), Kerry (9/4) and Tyrone (11/2), with Galway ranked fifth on 16/1.

Mayo's failure to close out the All-Ireland deal from four attempts in finals (including one draw) since 2012 has raised serious doubts as to whether it's going to prove beyond this group.

Yet, according to the markets, there's still a better chance of it happening this year than of Galway plotting their way to the top.

In recent interviews, Walsh has listed some facts that hint at his annoyance over the general perception of Galway as not quite ready to swim with the big sharks. He pointed out how competitive the Connacht Championship has been in recent years and how well Galway have done.

Tomorrow's final will be their sixth successive meeting with Division 1 opposition in Connacht, having played Mayo three times and Roscommon twice in their last five games. Galway won three, drew one and lost one.

And there's more. Walsh explained that playing Mayo in their first Connacht game this year and last year was hugely demanding, not just on the day but in terms of timing everything so that a team is ready for such a big challenge by early June.

Preparation

"Every time we tog out and go out to play Mayo - a Division 1 side, top two or three in the country - it's tough and takes a lot of preparation," he said.

It's a fair point. Dublin launched their Leinster campaign against Carlow, who were ranked 26 places below them in the league and followed up against Westmeath, who finished 24 places behind them. Kildare, who were in Division 2 this year, await them in the final.

Kerry qualified for the Munster final by beating Clare (13th in Division 2) while Tyrone's first opponents in Ulster were Derry, who were relegated from Division 2.

Dublin, Kerry or Tyrone would not fancy taking on Mayo in their first game - and certainly not in Castlebar as Galway did last year. In fairness to Mayo, Galway's large presence alongside them poses its problems too, especially in years when the counties are drawn on the same side, which has been a frequent occurrence in recent times.

In fact, it happened in four of the last five championships (including this year), which is unusual in a seven-team province where London and New York play the other five in sequence.

The tone of Walsh's remarks suggests that he cannot quite understand why Galway haven't got more credit. Commenting on the defiant second half- stand against Mayo last month, he pointed out that Galway conceded no score in the final 11 minutes.

"But you don't hear too much about that," he added.

Actually, Galway received lots of praise for the success over Mayo, just as they had done last year when they won in Castlebar. They were far less effective against Roscommon in the drawn Connacht final and might well have lost if their opponents had shown any sense of adventure late on.

It was different in the replay when Galway blitzed their opponents, hitting them for 3-16. The Connacht success generated real optimism among the Galway public that they would, at the minimum, see All-Ireland semi-final action for the first time since 2001.

However, Tipperary wrecked those plans, destroying the Galway defence with the successful execution of the most basic ploys - quick deliveries, high fielding and direct running. Galway were totally overpowered, eventually losing by nine points and leaving supporters wondering how a defence that had conceded an average of 0-12 in three games against Division 1 defences in Connacht could leak 3-13 against Division 3 opposition.

Meanwhile, Mayo were advancing towards the All-Ireland final through the 'back door' and while they eventually came up just short against Dublin, there was little doubt in the public's mind that they were ahead of Galway in the end-of-year rankings.

That still appears to be the case, even if a win tomorrow would take Galway to an All-Ireland quarter-final, whereas Mayo have to pass two tests to reach the same stage.

Walsh adopted a philosophical approach to the defeat by Tipperary, talking up the positives from a first Connacht success in eight years. Further advancement was made last spring when Galway won the Division 2 title and now they are one win away from retaining the Connacht title for only the second time in 30 years.

Even the All-Ireland-winning side of 1998-2001, where Walsh featured as one of the major influences, failed to win successive provincial titles.

Despite that, Walsh knows that Connacht titles aren't enough to satisfy a Galway public that always has high expectations, even if unrealistic at times.

Retaining the Connacht title and reaching the All-Ireland semi-final is the minimum target for this year. Anything less will be classed as disappointing.

Relegation

Meanwhile, winning tomorrow would make Roscommon's year, irrespective of how they fared in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Relegation from Division 1 was always likely, not necessarily because of how last year had fizzled out after a promising start but because of the quality of teams in the top flight.

Roscommon and Cavan were pre-season favourites for relegation and so it proved. Inevitably, Roscommon's stature dropped in the public estimation after they lost six of seven games but, as manager, Kevin McStay pointed out, they were operating in a tough environment.

He also noted how Roscommon came so close to beating Galway in last year's drawn Connacht final and believes that neither team could have improved or regressed to a huge degree in 12 months.

Using that calculation, Roscommon will travel to Pearse Stadium with a fair degree of confidence. There's no doubt that they used a lot of energy in their drive to compete in Division 1 last year, which may have had a negative impact later on.

"We have been stale in the championship - we put a lot of effort into the league and we have to look at that," said Fergal O'Donnell after the Connacht final replay defeat.

O'Donnell was then joint-manager with McStay, a relationship that did not survive. The question now is whether Roscommon, having calibrated this season more in line with championship than league requirements, are better tuned for a Connacht final.

McStay is confident that is the case and while he respects Galway as an emerging force, he says "they're not Tyrone, they're not Donegal, they're not Kerry, they're not these sort of teams."

They are, however, a team which have beaten Mayo in successive seasons, which shows their capabilities when moving on full power. Still, Roscommon know how close they came to beating Galway last year, a memory they hope will provide an inspiring backdrop to tomorrow's test.

Irish Independent

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