Saturday 21 October 2017

Contenders or pretenders? Analysing Galway's chances of winning All Ireland

For the first time in 28 years Galway start the summer campaign as All-Ireland favourites - but is it justified?

Galway captain David Burke and Jason Flynn celebrate with the cup. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Galway captain David Burke and Jason Flynn celebrate with the cup. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Are Galway different this year? The public perception of them has certainly leaned heavily towards that conclusion since their Allianz League title success but then there's nothing new there.

Opinions - and this applies as much to pundits as the general public - tend to be disproportionately swayed by more big recent events, even if longer trends are far more reliable.

It's why reigning All-Ireland champions almost always start the following season as favourites to retain the title, irrespective of how close their main rivals were.

In Tipperary's case this year, there was lots of talk in the county about empire-building - not from Michael Ryan or the squad it must be said - and predictions that the All-Ireland double would be completed for the first time since 1964-'65.

It still might be, but views on Tipperary have altered dramatically over the past month. Much of what was written and said about them in the weeks before the League final centred on how strong and settled they were. Comfortable wins over Dublin, Waterford and Clare in the first three games were offered as proof that Tipperary had wintered sensibly and, similar to what Kilkenny have always done as All-Ireland champions, targeted the League for full attention.

The strength of Tipp's bench was highlighted as another major plus, with suggestions that many of them were just as good as the first choices.

Now, all has changed following defeats by Cork and Galway. Defects are highlighted all over the place, including the subs' bench which, we're told, isn't occupied by game-changers after all.

Just as Tipperary's stock has bombed, Galway's share price has zoomed. They are now favourites to win the All-Ireland title for the first time since 1989, a position earned mainly by a combination of the League win, Tipp's slump and uncertainty over Kilkenny.

In the Irish Independent championship magazine, published a few weeks ago, Galway got three of five votes (Cyril Farrell, John Mullane, Colm Keys) as likely All-Ireland winners; Vincent Hogan sided with Tipperary and I went for Kilkenny.

My reasoning was simple. Based on the past 17 years, Kilkenny are by far the most reliable force. They scaled many peaks in that period and while they may not be climbing as high now, the All-Ireland title could still be picked up on lower slopes.

Just as we were constantly being told that Tipperary had such a talented squad that their second team would stretch the first 15, the assessment of Kilkenny has been of a side so desperately short of back-up that even when they were struggling against Wexford in the League quarter-final, Brian Cody brought on only one sub.

That was depicted as a worrying sign for Kilkenny, ignoring the fact that, whether winning or losing, Cody has never worked the bench as hard as other managers. He brought on two subs in last year's All-Ireland final, which they lost to Tipperary, two in the 2015 final when they beat Galway, and two in the 2014 replay win over Tipperary.

PRO_2014-01-25_LIF_008_30287973_I1.JPG
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody celebrates with goalkeeper James McGarry after winning the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final in 2006

As far back as 2008, when Kilkenny had the All-Ireland final against Waterford all neatly packaged before half-time, Cody brought on only two subs, one of whom was goalkeeper James McGarry in his sign-off outing prior to retirement.

So reading Kilkenny's sparing use of subs against Wexford last month as a sign of squad weakness is a mistake.

All of which brings us to Galway and their new-found status as All-Ireland favourites. The League win has hoisted them to the top of the pecking order, unfamiliar territory which will bring its own pressures.

That apart, has their recent good form banished all the old ghosts? Suddenly, Galway's strengths, rather than weaknesses, are being talked up, not just in the county but elsewhere too.

That's despite the fact that Galway missed the season's first target when they failed to win promotion from Division 1B.

It may look irrelevant now but the fact remains that they blew their promotion chance when losing to Wexford after leading by seven points at one stage.

Galway could argue that Wexford are a real force again and that losing to them wasn't as much of a setback as it might have been a few years ago but it was still a missed opportunity for Micheál Donoghue's men.

In fairness, wins over Limerick (twice), Waterford and Tipperary have shown Galway in a much more positive light. However, whether it entitles them to All-Ireland favouritism is an altogether different matter.

Limerick have struggled against Galway for quite some time while Waterford's collapse after leading by ten points was inexplicable.

So too was Tipperary's implosion in the final, where they hurled like a team that had come together for the first time 30 minutes before the game. Cyril Farrell points out in his column today that for the first time in several years, Galway are going into the championship with a settled look.

That's down to their strong finish to the League but how reliable will it prove to be when temperatures rise in the championship? Things can change very quickly as Tipperary have discovered.

We were repeatedly told after last year's All-Ireland final and again early on this season that the Tipperary defence had become so solid that it would be around as a unit for a long time.

Now, after conceding a total of 5-48 in their last two games, all six, plus goalkeeper, Darren Gleeson will be under scrutiny before Ryan settles on his team for the qualifier relaunch in early July.

The Galway defence did very well against Limerick (League semi-final), Tipperary (final) and in the last 25 minutes of the quarter-final against Waterford. However, up to then, Waterford had taken them for 2-17, a return that wins quite a lot of games.

One of the key questions facing Galway this summer is whether Gearóid McInerney can continue to command the centre-back slot as effectively as he did in the latter stages of the League.

His aerial skills are reminiscent of his father, who thrived under dropping ball, but how will Gearóid cope when opposition vary their game, as they inevitably will, in an effort to test his ground war capabilities?

Indeed, that's likely to be one of Dublin's main attacking strategies tomorrow. David Burke tends to retreat to help out his half-backs, another ploy that has worked for Galway but for how long?

Opposition know how effective it has been for them and will try to keep Burke so occupied that he has more to worry about than acting as a fourth half-back.

There's no doubting the scoring potential in the Galway attack but again there's a consistency issue, especially against Kilkenny.

Away from on-field considerations, there's the psychological dimension which, ultimately, could decide whether Galway make the All-Ireland breakthrough.

Similar to Mayo footballers, they have put themselves in a position to win the title but didn't see it through on any of the three occasions that presented themselves in the 2012 (twice) and 2015 finals.

Of course, it may be that they just weren't good enough but there also the possibility that they lacked the belief to see the job through after putting themselves in a position to win in all three games.

Few would have thought when Galway joined the Leinster championship in 2009 that, eight years later, they would only have won one title. On the law of averages, they would have been expected to catch Kilkenny more often than that.

This year's Leinster campaign is crucial for Galway. They need to follow up on the League success by winning the next available title too, thus maintaining a momentum which has increased substantially in recent times.

Only time will tell whether it's real or merely the by-product of an unreliable League campaign.

Galway's record as league champions

Galway’s nine previous attempts to follow up on a League final win with an All-Ireland title triumph later in the season have succeeded only once (1987). Here’s how they have fared after winning League titles.

2010: After beating Cork comfortably in the League final, Galway reached the Leinster decider where Kilkenny beat them by seven points. Tipperary eliminated them from the All-Ireland race, winning the quarter-final by a point.

2004: The League final win over Waterford was followed by a dismal championship exit when losing a qualifier clash to Kilkenny by 19 points.

2000: Galway repeated their League final win over Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final but lost the semifinal by eight points to Kilkenny.

1996: Galway beat Tipperary in the League final but failed to build on the success, losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Wexford.

1989: Another League final win over Tipperary but it was different in the All-Ireland semi-final when the Premier ended Galway’s three-in-a-row ambitions in a fractious game where Galway had two players sent off. They were also without Tony Keady who had been controversially suspended for playing without proper clearance in New York.

1987: The only occasion when Galway followed up on a League title success (they beat Clare in the final) with an All-Ireland win after beating Tipperary in the semi-final and Kilkenny in the final.

1975: After winning the League title for the first time since

1951 (they beat Tipperary in the final), Galway beat Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final but lost heavily to Kilkenny in the final.

1951: Galway beat Wexford in the ‘Home’ League final and New York in the actual final but the Slaney men gained revenge in the All-Ireland semi-final, winning by five points.

1931: Galway beat Tipperary in the League final but were

later well beaten by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Irish Independent

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