After years of unfulfilled promise, Galway's young guns are making their mark
Minor and under 21 wins won't translate to senior success unless players are developed properly
When Shane Moloney scored the winning point in last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, an obvious question arose: where had he been in the seasons that followed him captaining the county to a minor championship title in 2011? That year he scored 1-9 in the final against Dublin, having hurled county at the grade for three years.
But the match against Tipperary last August marked his senior championship debut. In a memorable cameo he came on in the 68th minute, took a Joe Canning pass in stoppage time, slipped by Conor O'Brien and fired over the winner.
Good and great Galway minors have come and gone and their unfulfilled promise forms an underlying narrative in the county's long-running quest to win the MacCarthy Cup. Moloney took a bit longer than most to get his opportunity. His manager Anthony Cunningham explained later that the player hadn't attained the required fitness for that level of hurling to figure in the league and after a run with the intermediates he impressed in a senior challenge match against Wexford which put him back in the frame. Moloney also won an All-Ireland minor medal in 2009 at 16, but Galway has seen many players with bright minor careers fade from view to the point where those losses were no longer generating an outcry.
Last year's county final win for Sarsfields brought Kerril Wade back into the spotlight, a name which was associated with Galway wins at minor and under 21 before his senior career stalled. There are manifold reasons why the transition might fail. In Wade's case he hurled under Ger Loughnane and was recalled by his successor John McIntyre but let go in the spring of 2011. At the same time another bright prospect, Keith Kilkenny, withdrew, having decided that he didn't feel he had the pace for senior inter-county hurling.
Kilkenny was one of those players Mattie Murphy, who managed six All-Ireland minor winning teams, had great time for and felt would make a really good senior hurler. It wasn't to be. The constant rotation of managers and short time spans might have contributed to the lack of follow through at one stage but this is no longer an issue. Now that pattern may be changing. Of the players who saw action against Clare in the recent quarter-final win, many are products of the Galway teams that won All-Irelands at minor and under 21 in 2011. A higher percentage now appears to be graduating and staying the course.
Adrian Tuohy, a serious prospect who made his championship debut against Clare, was on the 2011 minor side, as were John Hanbury, introduced to the senior team last year, Pádraig Mannion, Jason Flynn and Moloney. Moloney's Abbey Duniry club mate, Pádraig Brehony, has also played senior championship for Galway and Paul Killeen, full-back on that minor team, is on the current senior squad.
From the 2011 under 21 side, with many of the players who won an All-Ireland minor in 2009, Galway have brought through Johnny Coen, David Burke, Davy Glennon and Conor Cooney, while Niall Burke played in the earlier part of the championship although his career has been stifled by injuries. Daithí Burke had two years' minor, winning an All-Ireland in 2009, and was good enough to have played three. He made the senior team in 2014 and has established himself as one of the team's best defenders. Joseph Cooney, also named in today's side against Tipperary, was another member of the successful minor team of 2009.
When Cunningham took over as senior manager after guiding the county to their last under 21 title, he took many of those players into the senior panel. Mattie Kenny was a selector alongside Cunningham at under 21 and went with him, and Tom Helebert, when Cunningham was appointed senior manager.
"That was an exceptional side," says Kenny of the 2011 under 21 group. "We were playing the winners coming out of Munster. Limerick and Cork were very very strong; they played an outstanding Munster final, but we were very well prepared and had a very talented side. They beat Limerick quite comprehensively in that semi-final and then Dublin comprehensively enough in the final.
"That 2011 side, when we took over the following year with Anthony Cunningham, we brought virtually the full team into the panel. In the following three years they contested two All-Irelands, testament to that group of players. We worked with them. They were good and had a very strong work ethic and were very coachable guys."
In the first league match the following year, Galway hosted Dublin in Salthill. Dublin were after reaching the All-Ireland semi-final and had won the league the previous year. Galway, beaten by Dublin in Leinster the previous year, won the tie, laying down a marker, and their man of the match was one of their 2011 under 21s, Niall Burke, who starred at centre forward.
"We are four years on now," says Kenny, who was also involved when Galway won the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2005, beating Kilkenny in the final. "I think they are maturing now. They were always very talented hurlers. I think they have matured physically and mentally. I think they are at a good age, in their mid-20s, to push on now for honours."
Galway won back-to-back minor All-Irelands in 2004 and '05, and the win at under 21 in '05 was repeated two years later by a big margin in the final against Dublin. Those teams had a lot of talented hurlers but some of their most notable players didn't have prolonged senior careers. Kilkenny and Wade were both on the '04 minor side, and Kilkenny was there when they retained it a year later, while John Lee captained the minor winning team of 2004 from centre back and Ger Mahon hurled in the same backline. Kevin Hynes, as a forward, also played but found himself recast as an emergency full-back in 2013, getting badly burned in the Leinster final and offered little protection when Paul Ryan was sprayed quality ball. Hynes captained the under 21 team in 2007. Wade scored 1-4 in the 2007 All-Ireland under 21 final but only Joe Canning of that starting team is hurling for Galway now.
When Ger Loughnane took over Galway in 2007, the team he picked which lost the All-Ireland quarter-final to Kilkenny had Mahon at full-back, Lee at centre and Wade ended up top scorer. In 2008 they were eliminated in the qualifiers by Cork, with Lee still there, but Mahon had lost his place and Wade was peripheral.
The next year McIntyre took over, retaining Lee, but Mahon only made one championship appearance as a substitute and Wade didn't feature. In 2010 Lee had lost his starting place as well. In 2011 he played the first championship game against Westmeath and came on in the last match when beaten by Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter finals.
That ended McIntyre's stay and the next year saw a new sweep of the panel with Cunningham's arrival. A new batch of young players were ready to give it a go. Most of these have had better luck.
Lee was a talented player but a course in medicine was demanding of his time and he found it hard to maintain a high level of fitness. Galway's move into Leinster in 2009 took time to return a dividend too. By the time they won the provincial title for the first time, in 2012, many of those players had seen the end of their senior careers.
Could anything more have been done to change that? Mattie Kenny thinks so. "Within Galway there was a recognition that they needed a clearly defined pathway to bring these players forward. That is something that has been addressed in the last number of years. That is a challenge for a lot of counties and clubs. There are certain pathways and guidelines now bringing these guys forward. Because there is a gap between 18 and 21, you have to have that pathway for player development. That is crucial.
"By no means have we cracked it yet. But it is something the county board are very aware of. It is a work in progress. It is evolving. It is going to take time."
Kenny also cites factors such as the development of centralised facilities, like a strength and conditioning base in Clarinbridge and a county training hub at Claregalway. "Those two things have been very positive for the preparation of teams. A very welcome addition for all managers and teams."
As for those players who might have had more telling contributions to Galway, Kenny says it is time to park that topic. "You can't change the past. You have to look forward to the future with greater optimism while learning from some of the mistakes made in the past."
The idea sometimes offered that players lose their edge if fattened on too much success at a young age isn't something he has much time for. "If you look at the success in Waterford and Clare, that was built on good minor and 21 teams. If you look at Kilkenny, most of those guys won minor and 21. I don't think that argument holds up. The thing is, when you have talent coming through, there is a responsibility that you utilise that to the best of your ability."
That might be more successfully handled now than ever before in Galway. Retaining their best young players is the first step. Finding the right blend with the already established is the next one. The final step of the journey.
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