Martin Breheny: Galway rebels fail first big test and hurlers can't blame former manager
Published 06/04/2016 | 02:30
If, by some miracle of diplomacy not usually associated with player revolts against management, a deal had been worked out last year which left Anthony Cunningham in charge of the Galway hurlers, what would be the reaction now?
Would Galway's ejection from the Allianz League's top tier for the first time since the early 1990s be greeted with benign indifference in the county and a knowing 'sure all that matters is the championship' look? And would outside observers dismiss it as a mere quirk of fate in a six-team group where one big shot is shown the gate every year?
I doubt it. Indeed, mutterings of discontent would have started on the roads around Pearse Stadium last Sunday evening after Cork had booked Galway into 1B for 2017. They would have been even louder in the dressing-room.
Supporters of the players' revolt against Cunningham would have gone into 'told you so' mode and even those who had reservations about it might reluctantly agree that a change of management should have been made.
Actually, it would probably have started earlier. Perhaps even as far back as the Saturday night in February when Galway, backed by the wind, trailed Dublin by a mere two points early in the second half in Parnell Park, before conceding an unanswered 1-5 in 15 minutes to a team that had lost to Tipperary by 14 points a week earlier. Dublin went on to beat Galway by seven points.
That would have provided a fertile environment for the theory that the players "aren't playing for Cunningham". And if the relegation trap door snapped down on Galway with Cunningham in charge, the recriminations would have multiplied.
They would most likely include a meeting of the squad, followed by a non-negotiable demand for his removal before the championship.
After all, if players wanted him out after last year's All-Ireland final, it's safe to assume that they would be even more militant now after failing the next test.
Dropping into 1B is, of itself, not a major issue. One of the top six has to go and since a five-game programme barely constitutes a real league, the margins between relegation and survival are tiny.
Still, of all counties in the group this year, Galway should have had the greatest motivation for not only remaining in 1A but for going on to win the title.
By rebelling against Cunningham last autumn, the players sent out a clear message that they held him responsible for the All-Ireland final defeat. Having forced a change, they would then have been expected to make a bold statement about their intentions under new manager Micheál Donoghue.
It looked as if they were on track to do that when easily beating Cork in the first round of the league. Instead, they failed to win any game since then. Only Laois have a worst record in Division 1 as Cork finally won a game last Sunday.
Avoiding relegation was the absolute minimum Galway needed but they failed to achieve it. And this time, the players can't blame Cunningham.
Presumably, they won't blame Donoghue either, since he's had only a few months to work with them.
So will they blame themselves? On the basis of their reaction to last year's All-Ireland final defeat, they will find that an utterly ludicrous hypothesis. Us? Never.
That leaves bad luck as the only scapegoat. Yes, it was a factor, since Galway were weakened by injuries but that's part of the game and has to be worked through. Besides, most counties were below full strength at various stages.
The Galway squad took a hardline stand behind closed doors late last year but haven't been quite as tough on the pitch so far this season. That's the uncomfortable reality they will take into the championship.
Mayo footballers, who were equally uncompromising in their determination to force a change of management, came perilously close to being relegated too, eventually surviving on scoring difference.
No more than Galway hurlers, they too would have benefited greatly from winning the league but came up well short.
Between them, the Galway and Mayo rebels won four of 13 league games. It's a low level of defiance by squads who were so certain of what they wanted last autumn.
Question is: where does it leave them for the coming summer?