Sunday 24 September 2017

No buckling this time as years of hurt are channelled into glorious liberation

Former Galway player Joe Connolly
Former Galway player Joe Connolly

Dermot Crowe

Thirty years ago or thereabouts I met someone who has been a friend since, through thick and thin. He hails from east Galway.

We cycled to the 1987 National Football League final between Dublin and Kerry, while students in Dublin, and in that year's hurling equivalent he saw his Galway, already defeated in successive All-Ireland finals, almost ambushed by Clare.

But for a missed goal attempt by Gerry McInerney (the Clare version, not the white-heeled son of Kinvara) Galway would have been beaten. It is my friend's contention that this might have been the final straw. They might have snapped.

Instead the win emboldened them. They drove on, rejuvenated, to win the All-Ireland later that year, atoning for the disappointing final losses in 1981, '85 and '86. They retained it the next year for the first time in their history and then, astonishingly, the winning just stopped and the losing, like ivy, became all-enveloping.

Last Sunday, this friend of mine would say he was relieved more than anything to see the county return to the podium as All-Ireland champions. In that time he has gone from being a teenager to middle age.

In that time all the hordes that followed Galway when they were champions in the late 1980s vanished, or the great bulk of them, and now they have returned again.

In that time he kept going, mystifyingly at times when attending Walsh Cup games in Freshford in early year and having to rely on the limitations of public transport, for he never drove nor bought himself a car. There are supporters like that there still. They did not go soft. I guess they never broke nor lost hope.

Galway's current liberation shows some similarities to '87, though this time it was preceded by an All-Ireland semi-final defeat, preceded in turn by an All-Ireland final reversal.

There was a league win in the spring but this time you had an emphatic victory, not the jittery win of 30 years before against Clare. And they didn't beat a county, like Clare were at the time, ageing and having reached their pinnacle when pushing Cork in the Muster final in Killarney the previous summer. They destroyed the All-Ireland champions.

Then, when the affable Micheál Donoghue, the ninth managerial change since Cyril Farrell's heyday, said last Sunday evening that they'd decided "enough is enough", you could hear in his voice an unmistakeable ring of truth. They reached a point where they had their fill of excuses and surrenders and near-misses. They were harder in mind and body. They found a man-bear for centre-back who demonstrated a new level of hurling intelligence to go with it. There were lots of things that visibly improved but it came from the invisible place deep within.

The weight of recent history still nearly pulled them down. The goals were avoidable, especially the second, and some of their mistakes were not what you would expect of a team on the brink of winning an All-Ireland.

John Hanbury picked a ball clean off the ground as if his hand was being guided by the same mischief which makes a boy do something in class he knows he shouldn't, and Adrian Tuohey caught the ball three times which he may never have done before and will probably never do again. Each led to a Waterford point.

Throw in those Waterford wides, the one from the warrior Kevin Moran in the second half that looked set to put them a brace clear when they were beginning to really perk up, and those four that deflated them after Tommy Ryan's rousing score off the stick in the 59th minute. Galway were never allowed to breathe comfortably despite the feast of points they nailed, many of them works of art.

Waterford left more than enough to suggest they can come back again. Austin Gleeson didn't reach the summit of his powers and the team's age profile for the most part is on their side.

Tadhg de Búrca was immense. Jamie Barron and Noel Connors too. There are no guarantees an All-Ireland will come but they don't look the kind willing to believe that or prepared to stop trying.

It was clear from the reaction of Joe Connolly that Galway took exception to some of the criticism they've received over the years, notably the charge that they were too soft.

This was an affront to the character of people like Connolly, no doubt, and many more like him, but there were numerous occasions when Galway too easily turned the other cheek. There were times when they lost their nerve. When they had the hurling, but buckled. Not this year though.

Enough was enough, as their manager explained. The West has reawakened.

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