'Galway are capable of catching fire when you least expect it'
Keady desperate for Tribesmen to prove they still have a future, writes Vincent Hogan
Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30
"Well there's no time for Galway to feel sorry for themselves!"
In the RTE commentary booth, Ger Canning's words could have been the credits starting to roll on a disaster movie. We had just witnessed a jolting, four-point turnaround in the 2012 All-Ireland hurling final replay.
Within seconds of Joe Canning's shot rebounding to safety from the butt of a Canal End upright for what would have been an equalising goal, Cillian Buckley had struck a Hill End point for Kilkenny. The natural thought process was precisely the one now being articulated in the commentary.
To wonder about Galway's capacity to cope. Seconds later, Cyril Donnellan swung recklessly on JJ Delaney in front of the Cusack Stand – splitting the Kilkenny man – and, after consultation with Barry Kelly, James McGrath sent him off. Between Canning hitting the post and Donnellan seeing red was a stretch of precisely 56 seconds.
Is that the length of time it took this Galway team to die? Anthony Cunningham's inaugural season as manager brought a first Leinster title and, maybe more thrillingly, evidence of innovation and ruthlessness in Galway's hurling.
They humiliated Kilkenny in the provincial final, exploding from the traps to lead by a startling 14 points at half-time.
Everything about them seemed a repudiation of caricature. Because Galway – with their three-man midfield, rotating forwards and a tactic of breaking high ball rather than attempting to engage in an unwinnable fetching match with Kilkenny – had found a way of hurling on their own terms, not the opposition's. Cunningham was overseeing revolution.
But in the time it took the on-screen digital clock to travel from 47.05 to 48.01 on September 30, 2012, everything unravelled. And, in the next 13 minutes, they would be out-scored by 2-6 to 0-1. A game that looked to be building towards something epochal lurched suddenly into slaughter. Kilkenny won by 12 points; Galway slipping home to old, familiar noises.
Twenty one months later, is there still life in the Cunningham revolution? Nobody knows. On Wednesday, Tony Keady found himself drawn into hurling talk with some people in Oranmore, but pointedly dodged their invitation to make a prediction for tomorrow.
What could be argued with any certainty? Keady was one of the great centre-backs of the game and a man who, through his 1980s pomp, seemed to become emboldened by the pressure of big hurling days.
He is now a selector with the county U-21s and someone who believes implicitly in Galway's capacity to pull lightning from the sky. But tomorrow in Tullamore? He feels no wiser than the next man.
What can be said with certainty is that Cunningham's Galway has not summoned a truly compelling performance since September of 2012.
They have exited successive National Leagues at the semi-final stage (both times to Kilkenny) and lost championship games last year against Dublin (Leinster final) and Clare (All-Ireland quarter-final) by an average margin of nine points.
Their recent struggle to evict Laois from the Leinster championship bore echoes of a similar struggle last summer, only this one being more pained and decidedly more dramatic.
So the search for progress seems to be leading down blind alleys again.
When Conor Hayes took them to the '05 All-Ireland final against Cork, the team was, rightly, lauded for an attacking spontaneity that had swamped Kilkenny in a high-scoring semi-final. Yet Hayes suspected that the fuel of anger would not go amiss with certain players and, in the week of the final, a video analysis session offered repeated viewings of John Allen's championship preview for 'The Sunday Game' the previous May.
The intended verdict of the session was that Allen, Cork's manager, had been dismissive of Galway's prospects. It made no difference, Cork winning the final by five points.
When Ger Loughnane then replaced Hayes as manager after a flat championship in '06, he targeted what he'd previously identified in his punditry as a lack of on-field leadership in Galway. Or "men of substance" as he put it.
That winter, Loughnane pushed the Galway players ruthlessly over Paudge O'Connor's all-weather gallops in Tubber. He'd salt the agony by having them run with hands in the air and, after training, introduced them to the delicious torture of out-door ice-baths.
Loughnane's view seemed to tally with an outside perception of Galway hurling that the players were soft. That, in crisis, they would equivocate.
A modified baseball pitching machine was also brought in to help deal with their perceived weakness in the air. And the sports science expertise of Ger Hartmann was referenced to ensure that mistakes made in Loughnane's final year as Clare manager – i.e. over-training the team – would not be repeated.
Yet, in the '07 championship, Galway fell meekly to Clare at Cusack Park in a vaguely surreal qualifier, then went toe to toe with Kilkenny for a wonderful hour in an All-Ireland quarter-final only to end up losing by 10 points.
One year later, they seemed to have regressed again, the qualifier defeat to a 14-man Cork pre-empting Loughnane's departure.
This was the day that signalled Joe Canning's arrival on the big stage, the 19-year-old Portumna kid delivering 2-12 in only his second championship game for an otherwise subdued team.
Canning would be named Young Hurler of the Year for his efforts and win the first of three All Star awards.
Rightly acknowledged as one of the most naturally gifted hurlers to grace the game, he is Galway's captain this year. Yet he missed all bar the latter stages of the league through injury, Conor Cooney thus inheriting the job of free-taker.
A feeling seems to be growing in Galway that Canning is now prone to drifting to the periphery of games in which they need a marquee presence, albeit his performance for a beaten team in last year's Leinster final was heroic.
Over the last two seasons, his scoring return from play in league and championship (he has started 11 games) is 1-19. An average of exactly 0-2 per game. To beat Kilkenny tomorrow, Galway – almost certainly – will need more than that from Joe.
True, they retain a capacity like few others to spook Brian Cody's men as their championship victories of '01, '05 and '12 will signify. Yet, hindsight gives those victories the status of scratch-card wins today. They return as random guerilla strikes, thrilling aberrations in the general tenor of the rivalry.
After all, in the 26 years since Galway's last senior All-Ireland win, Kilkenny have stockpiled 11.
Keady was a stalwart of that '88 team, a side with a name for being hard-nosed and outwardly self-confident. Cunningham was part of it too, albeit cursed with the role of perennial substitute.
When the Galway walls came tumbling down in that 2012 replay, Keady says he was with his wife and children "grinding my teeth" in the Davin Stand. He'd been thrilled by the quality of Galway's hurling all summer but, now, watched the dream die "in less than a minute".
And the status of that dream now?
"If they don't put up a good performance against Kilkenny in Tullamore, it's gone," he says. "That is for sure. We need to know what direction we're going after Sunday, that's the bottom line. Last year was a total disaster, we just want to forget about it completely.
"Like if you look at Joe Canning, Mother of God, at 18 and 19 he was considered our finest of all time. But the years are flying by. What is he now? 25 going on 26? It's unbelievable what's happening. So we really have to push the boat out on Sunday to see where we are."
They made mistakes in 2012, no question. The decision to play goalkeeper James Skehill in the replay just two days after dislocating his shoulder in training was ill-advised. Similarly, Canning's comments between draw and replay about Henry Shefflin's sportsmanship sparked ire across Kilkenny that, whilst never directly referenced in a Cody team-talk, created palpable tension.
But it must be remembered too that Galway hurling had to cope with far more than regret last winter. The tragic loss of Niall Donoghue in October devastated team-mates for whom the pursuit of a Celtic Cross must suddenly have seemed crushingly unimportant.
Few doubt Cunningham and his players to be one of the groups that could, conceivably, lift the Liam MacCarthy in September. But those ruinous 56 seconds of September 2012 may have scarred them and it is worth asking, what did they signify? Bear in mind that as Eamonn Taaffe scored the goal that effectively won the '95 All-Ireland final for Clare, Loughnane had a slip of paper in his hand to have Taaffe replaced by Alan Neville.
"I was looking out on the field to see where the referee was to see if I could come on to make the switch," he subsequently remarked in his biography, 'Raising The Banner'. "The next thing I saw the Clare flags hitting the sky at the Canal End. I thought it was Fergal Hegarty who had scored the goal." The deities smiled on Clare that day.
Is Galway's greatest weakness just being cursed with rotten luck?
You have to wonder what the width of that post inflicted upon them two years ago? Maybe Kilkenny would have won regardless, but a Galway goal at the time would have meant they had taken six out of the game's last eight scores to tie the contest. It would have equated to serious momentum.
Their story has been strikingly underwhelming since, yet Keady will go to Tullamore tomorrow clinging to familiar hope.
"People are seriously hard on Galway," he says. "And I suppose the way things are gone, the fans are aching for something. I'd say a lot of them would be nearly happy enough if Galway got beaten by three or four points and put up a performance.
"But the bottom line is they have to perform. And you know I don't think anyone could say for certain that they won't win. Like everyone is talking them down, but Galway hurling is never that far off the track! They're always capable of catching fire when you least expect it."
Until they do, though, that cold question will remain. Did this team's future die in 56 seconds?