Men on a mission to conquer crippling inferiority complex
Galway finally appear to have the belief to match their talent, writes Damian Lawlor
After they whipped Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final replay, the Galway players left the field amid excited whoops from their supporters.
Some players paused to grasp a friend's hand or embrace a neighbour but there was nothing but intent on their faces. Galway hurlers recognise that one swallow does not a summer make, but they had the look of men on a mission.
As the players went off, coach Eugene Cloonan dissected the events of the previous 70 minutes with colleagues as Damien Curley, a man steeped in Galway hurling, passed him. Curley stopped to deliver a quick verdict. "We knew that performance was there, but we actually thought it would have come last week," he said, referring to the drawn game where Galway had looked average at times.
A defeat would surely have derailed their season. Last year, after all, ended with gunfire sounding in their ears following that late collapse to Tipperary. They left Thurles that evening with so many questions and though they tried to dispel doubts in this year's league, concerns were instead only confounded by a shoddy display against Waterford in the quarter-final.
Still, Anthony Cunningham has stuck with the project. He was adamant last season that he wanted to finish the job he had started. There's always a steely glint in his eye, but this year you sense they are not far off where they want to be. A Leinster title today is not necessarily the be all and end all either.
"Win or lose, the bottom line is that Galway people are still looking for an All-Ireland title," says Justin Campbell, who played with the county at senior level for nine seasons. "This final probably means more to Kilkenny, and that's no disrespect to the competition. If Galway win, it will still mean nothing unless we add an All-Ireland to it.
"Yet we have the physique this year, that's one difference, and there is a bit of belief now that these lads could do damage."
That respect hasn't always been afforded to the team, but they certainly have a promising combination of youth and experience now. And for the first time in years, they also have a strong list of reserves to summon when needed. The lack of firepower from the side was glaring against Tipp last season, for instance. But against Dublin this year Cunningham could afford to introduce the likes of Joseph Cooney and trusted lieutenant Fergal Moore. Such strength in depth could be crucial.
Can they now find the consistency required to win an All-Ireland title? "As usual, the placing of Joe Canning is key," says Campbell, who recently managed Roscommon to the Nicky Rackard Cup alongside coach Noel Larkin.
"Joe has come too far out in recent years and the question must be asked: 'why has he come out the field?' If he's our biggest goal threat and our most dangerous forward, he needs to be on the 21-yard line.
"But when it has not been happening out the field, he has been called upon. From now on we have to use the bench to rectify that instead of totally changing the team around. Fine, if it's still not happening for Joe, then move him but we need him to be in the game. He's 27 now and he's been our best prospect over the last 10 years. A lot of brilliant hurlers have gone through the Galway set-up and won no All-Ireland and it would be very sad to see him go the same way.
"That's why we have to continue to evolve and learn no matter what happens against Kilkenny. Even if we lose by three or four points, we can come away believing that we are still there.
"They've strung two and a half decent displays together - can they tack on another two or three? Because that's what's needed."
For years Galway have arrived on the big stage too often all flash and little substance. This season, while there are still question marks over their defence, there is more grit and physicality about them.
And they have a lethal forward division. It's not just the 'Joe Show' any more. Yes, the Portumna man put 1-15 on the board against Laois but Cathal Mannion's brilliant hat-trick against Dublin is still the best individual showing of this year's championship. Mannion, Canning and Jason Flynn scored 5-15 against Dublin in the replayed game.
Now, Cunningham must decide whether to harness that flair or go with a style to specifically cope with Kilkenny's starting 15 and their legendary power and ruthlessness.
Will the Galway manager leave Iarla Tannian at centre-back or detail another to follow TJ Reid, who will come into that territory? Cunningham must surely consider his defence as a unit today.
"The other thing that needs to be addressed is how we finish tight games. If you go back over the last 15 years, we have always been caught in the last 10-20 minutes and these boys need to show that we are over that hump," Campbell adds. "The key thing, for me, is that we actually learn from this game no matter what happens.
"And I think we have a chance. JJ Delaney has been pound for pound the best hurler in country over the last 10 years and he's not there any more. Joey Holden is there instead - I'd put Joe Canning in on him because Holden hasn't been tested yet.
"There is a bit of pressure off Joe at last because the other lads seem to be stepping up. The midfielders are clicking, getting onto ball and getting points, and that will be key in dealing with Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly."
Flynn also knows that the time has come for the team to step up. From Campbell's era onwards, tales of woe have blighted Galway hurling. Flynn is young but he is already fed up of hearing of those dog days. He is adamant that they are not far off the holy grail.
"The two teams that beat us in the championship last year, Kilkenny and Tipperary, went on to play out a classic here in Croke Park - that was a sign that we weren't a million miles away from it," says the corner-forward. "We were close and it gave us a bit of confidence coming into this year that we aren't that far away.
"There are seven or eight teams that can win it. A few of those that come out of the back-door will have a huge chance, and they will have two extra games. The boost they will get from those two wins will be great for their confidence."
Flynn wasn't even born when Galway last claimed the Liam MacCarthy Cup 27 years ago. "I was born in 1994, so it's been a long time," he says. "I've come up to every final, hoping."
Campbell, too, has seen so many dark clouds hover over the west. They could lift with a few tweaks here and there, he feels, because he is sure the current players have the skill to land a championship.
"This is a confidence team and we've had a few wins already so another might lead to that sense of consistency which is key. In 2012, we went up to the All-Ireland finals sensing we were there with a chance. A lot of us probably had our fingers crossed that Galway would show up, whereas we always knew Kilkenny would. That belief they hold comes with tradition. Each day they go out Kilkenny play between 70-100 per cent and we need to get to that level.
"Over the years doubt has always crept into the players and they need to believe. It's definitely an inferiority thing coming from Connacht. I had that in my time too, that we were not as good as the rest. Whenever we played in All-Ireland semi-finals we played against household names, and in contrast we were never as well established. We were up against teams who were playing in Croke Park every second or third week as well and that helped them."
Campbell specifically remembers the 1993 All-Ireland against Kilkenny as one that got away. He came on as a sub when they were four points down, they dug in and brought it back level before Joe Rabbitte was pulled for overcarrying. It was a big call, Kilkenny got a score from it, added 1-1 within minutes and beat Galway by five.
"Classic Galway," Campbell sighs. "We had them on the rack but couldn't finish it."
The 1997 All-Ireland quarter-final against the same opposition at Thurles is another video nasty. One he still can't bear to watch. Galway led by nine points at one stage and Campbell was sparking on the wing, he had three points from play to his credit. But they took the foot off the pedal, DJ Carey roared into life and on a day when 'The Dodger' hit 2-8 from centre-forward, his team toughed it out and won by a point.
"They were sending line-balls over from everywhere," the former wing-forward recalls. "It just all seemed to click for them. So I'm just making the point that this is a Galway thing in general - nothing to do with the current team at all. The only thing is they have the jersey. They are the ones who can change the perception of us. It's a huge power they have. The truth is that over the last 20 years or so, when a team comes back at us we have a tendency to die."
If they could avoid that today, no matter what else happens, the summer would remain ripe with promise. That might do for now.
Galway v Kilkenny: the low-down
Galway and Kilkenny meet for the eighth time since the Tribesmen joined the Leinster championship. Five of the previous seven meetings have been in Leinster, with two in the drawn and replayed 2012 All-Ireland championship.
Last 10 championship clashes
2014: Kilkenny 3-19 Galway 1-17 (Leinster semi-final replay)
2014: Kilkenny 3-22 Galway 5-16 (Leinster semi-final)
2012: Kilkenny 3-22 Galway 3-11 (All-Ireland final replay)
2012: Kilkenny 0-19 Galway 2-13 (All-Ireland final)
2012: Galway 2-21 Kilkenny 2-11 (Leinster final)
2010: Kilkenny 1-19 Galway 1-12 (Leinster final)
2009: Kilkenny 2-20 Galway 3-13 (Leinster semi-final)
2007: Kilkenny 3-22 Galway 1-18 (All-Ireland quarter-final)
2006: Kilkenny 2-22 Galway 3-14 (All-Ireland quarter-final)
2005: Galway 5-18 Kilkenny 4-18 (All-Ireland semi-final)
Overall: Kilkenny 6 Galway 2; Draws 2
Galway had three games to reach the final, drawing (1-17 to 0-20) and beating (5-19 to 1-18) Dublin and also beating Laois (3-28 to 1-14). Their top scorers are:
Joe Canning 3-24 (0-13f, 0-3 '65')
Cathal Mannion 3-7
Jason Flynn 0-11 (0-7f)
Kilkenny have had one outing so far, beating Wexford by 5-25 to 0-16. Their top scorers are:
Ger Aylward 3-5
TJ Reid 1-7 (1-0pen, 0-3f, 0-1 '65')
Richie Hogan 1-5
Six things you didn't know
Galway are bidding to win the Leinster final for the second time since moving east for championship purposes in 2009. They won in 2012 and lost the finals in 2010 (to Kilkenny) and 2013 (to Dublin).
Kilkenny are bidding to win the Leinster title for the 15th time in 18 seasons. They won in 1998, '99, 2000, '01, '02, '03, '05, '06, '07, '08, '09, 2010, '11 and '14. They missed out in '04, '12 and '13.
Galway beat Kilkenny in this year's Allianz League, winning 0-20 to 0-18 in Pearse Stadium on March 8. Jason Flynn scored 0-11 (7f) for Galway while Richie Hogan on 0-10 (8f) was Kilkenny's top scorer.
Two of the last four Galway-Kilkenny championship games have finished level (the 2012 All-Ireland final and the 2014 Leinster semi-final). Kilkenny won both replays.
Kilkenny's defeat by Galway in 2012 was their first setback in the Leinster final since losing to Wexford in 1997.
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