What next for Galway?
Published 19/02/2011 | 05:00
"THERE is", said their football board chairman John Joe Holleran, "no crisis in Galway football."
Holleran then bemoaned what he regarded as an exaggerated media response to the curious events which unfolded in the county last weekend.
"There has been sensationalist reporting this week and that is regrettable. We have gone through barren periods before and come through and we will do that again," he said.
As a shrewd mover on the administrative circuit, Holleran should know that the adage which applies in real politics -- "if you're explaining, you're losing" -- also adapts well to sport.
He expects Galway supporters to accept, without question, that the departures from the panel of joint-captain Kieran Fitzgerald -- who, only a few weeks ago was happily talking of the future at the launch of the Allianz Leagues -- and Niall Coleman was down to a combination of recurring injury for the former and work pressures for the latter.
To categorise interest in such an unusual development as "sensationalist reporting" misses the point. As third in line on the All-Ireland senior table, Galway is a high-profile county which inevitably carries intense scrutiny.
The sudden withdrawal of two experienced players a week into the new league season would not merit as much attention in weaker counties, but it's naive to expect that it wouldn't become big news when it happens in a county like Galway.
Both Fitzgerald and Coleman offered the injury/work commitments explanation, but it still left some questions. Injured players, especially those with leadership roles as in Fitzgerald's case, go away for treatment and return if and when they're fit. They don't quit the panel completely, and certainly not a week into the new league season.
As for the work commitments explanation, it's perfectly plausible in the current economic climate. However, was it not an issue a week earlier when Coleman came on as a sub in the second half against Monaghan?
Adding to the intrigue was the timing of their withdrawals, which were both announced on the same day.
Events of the past two weeks (a five-point defeat to a depleted Monaghan and the departure of two players) inevitably fuelled speculation that all wasn't well in the Galway camp.
That's the nature of these things and while there's never a shortage of rumours, they are not worth addressing unless accompanied by something concrete. Besides, time tends to provide the answer anyway.
The task facing new manager Tomas O Flatharta was always going to be difficult, given that the circumstances surrounding the resignation of his predecessor Joe Kernan after last year's championship were, to say the least, curious.
Kernan wanted to remain on, but while Galway said that they were keen for him to continue, they were demanding that he made changes to his backroom team. He was, in effect, being undermined to such a degree that there was never a chance he would stay.
Was it a ploy to get him out? Galway would vehemently deny that, but they must have known that a man of Kernan's managerial stature wouldn't allow a veto on his support team. So when Galway decided to impose restrictions, they were effectively ending Kernan's term after just one year. Once again, Galway looked beyond its own borders for a successor.
The likes of Kerry, Cork, Dublin or Tyrone would never countenance such a move but, with the exception of Liam Sammon's two-year term in 2008-'09, Galway have been under outside management since 1998.
There are two possible explanations for that: Galway are failing to produce management material, or else they have become psychologically conditioned to thinking outsiders are better. Either way, it's an indictment of internal systems.
There's another issue, too. The departure of two players ensured that Galway got early-season publicity they didn't need but, in reality, it's merely a symptom of a broader concern for the county.
Galway football has been steadily losing altitude for quite some time and, like the Irish economy, could still be a long way from bottoming out.
The glory days of 1998-2001, when Sam Maguire twice wintered west, are like a speck dropping over a faraway horizon, replaced by a new reality which is not encouraging for Galway. The accompanying table shows how dramatically their fortunes have dipped in the last five seasons.
One Connacht senior title, an All-Ireland minor title and a Connacht minor crown is the extent of their return which, compared to the previous half of the decade, shows an alarming decline.
Their 2001 All-Ireland senior success was followed by a U-21 win the next year, prompting predictions that Galway were headed for a continued boom time. Instead, they haven't won a single game in Croke Park since then, while their only senior championship win over a non-Connacht team was against Louth in 2004.
That's one of the worst records of all and by far the most dismal return by counties in the top 20. With the exception of Leitrim, all three of Galway's Connacht rivals have done better in the qualifiers.
Galway won another All-Ireland U-21 title in 2005 with a team which featured several of the current senior squad. However, many of them haven't reached the same level of efficiency in the higher grade.
Meanwhile, the 2001 squad has broken up, leaving only Padraic Joyce, Joe Bergin and (up to last Sunday) Fitzgerald as the survivors.
It says much for Joyce that, 12 years after making his debut, he was Galway's best player last year.
In fairness, the absence of the injured Michael Meehan has been a serious setback but, even then, a county of Galway's size and resources should still do better in the championship than was the case last year when they lost to Sligo and Wexford.
One Connacht senior title has been Galway's only prize at any level in the last three seasons, making it one of the most barren periods for them on the provincial scene for a long time.
That raises serious questions about Galway's production lines and the manner in which they are formed, assessed, serviced and channelled.
Ultimately, that may be more damaging than the withdrawal of two players from the senior squad in February.
Holleran may be right when he says there's no crisis in Galway football -- not yet anyway. They are still in Division 1 (although they're now 2/5 to be relegated in April), they would always back themselves to do well in the Connacht championship and they have bigger numbers to work off than many other counties.
However, there can be no denying that Galway have declined dramatically in recent seasons.
Past achievements ensure that they continue to be regarded as a considerable force, but those reputational reserves are rapidly being eroded.
Players quitting the panel in February is an immediate problem but there could be longer-term -- and much more serious -- issues waiting down the road.