'We are within inches of it'
Cunningham has 'no doubt' Galway will buck trend of poor reaction to All-Ireland final defeat
Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30
How hard did Galway really squeeze?
Late in the first half Kilkenny corner-back Shane Prendergast went chasing back to collect a ball in the corner between the Hogan and Davin Stands where he had been policing the evasive Conor Whelan.
Prendergast is 29-years-old but, like Whelan, who is 11 years younger, this was his first All-Ireland final and you could see the unease as he glanced left and right behind him, like a track cyclist in a velodrome watching to see which side his opponent was coming to take him from.
Prendergast got there first but Whelan pressed hard enough to dispossess his marker before Kilkenny outriders flashed to the scene and scrambled to safety.
At that point it felt like the eye of the storm.
There were 28 minutes gone, Kilkenny hadn't scored since TJ Reid pointed a free for Andy Smith's foul on Mick Fennelly for a 1-5 to 0-7 lead 10 minutes earlier. They were fighting fires.
Galway soared in that second quarter, hitting the champions with everything. Jason Flynn landed three long-range frees, one from his own 45, a distance of some 100 metres.
They won five successive puck-outs. When Daithi Burke won the fourth in that sequence he punched the air and Flynn obliged for a 0-12 to 1-5 lead.
Eoin Larkin was hustled into overcarrying by a knot of maroon shirts with Joe Canning coming over to lend his considerable bulk to the task. The effort all over the field was communal. And uplifting.
Even the most assured hands on Kilkenny's deck looked a little spooked by it all. Paul Murphy, arguably the most consistent defender in the last five years, fumbled a routine ball inviting David Burke to pounce.
But Burke wasn't accurate enough to open a five-point lead that might have carried heavier weight given the identity of the player coughing up possession.
Then Richie Hogan arrowed over a point from a puck-out and, suddenly, you sensed calm was restored.
When Galway retired at half-time to a tumult of noise it felt like they had laid down a significant marker. But they were only three points clear.
Not enough for the rainy day never mind the deluge they'd be hit with after the break.
"We probably could have been more ahead," conceded Anthony Cunningham. "But you are playing Kilkenny. We had an outstanding first half and deserved to be three up. It could have been more but I don't think that was the winning or losing of the game.
"As time went on however we panicked a bit and had a few bad wides. That is extremely hard to get better at but it is something we have got to get better at.
"It is within our grasp to win an All-Ireland. We are within inches of it. But it is how we react from it," he suggested.
History is against them in that regard. Since 1988 they've now lost six All-Ireland finals and never once has there been the reaction you might expect.
Think of how limply they bowed out against Clare in 2013, Kilkenny in 2006, Clare in 2002.
This is the concern for Galway now, that the gains made in Thurles against Cork and Tipperary in Croke Park the last day will be handed back too easily.
"It is a massive challenge," acknowledged Cunningham.
"It is something we have already spoken about in the dressing room. If we stay at the same level we won't be back here. So we have got to work harder and get better but with the amount of players we have it is definitely within our grasp to do that and a huge amount of that is down to the players.
"I have no doubt that the system and professionalism we have is as good as ever. Players have to kick on. But the way they have worked so hard to drive on - that is there. So I would be very surprised if we don't kick on.
"We have been here before and it took us a couple of years more than we wanted to get back here. But all in all we have to keep working. We got huge experience again at the top end of the championship. A day like today is when you only get to witness that.
"That is what we will strive to get back to. I have no doubt that these players, they will work hard and they will get there. We are just hoping it will be sooner rather than later."
In mitigation they had nine players playing an All-Ireland final for the first time. Whelan was full of guts and energy, Flynn and Cathal Mannion can have better days, Padraig Mannion and Daithi Burke had their moments in defence, Colm Callanan will end Galway's 26-year wait for an All-Star goalkeeper.
Cunningham has rewritten the script since 2012 but to live with Kilkenny in the furnace that they created in that second half they'll have to find more.
"We just came up short in the second half in two or three different areas and were punished by an outstanding team really and a team that has massive hurling and massive hurlers. Our congratulations to Kilkenny," he acknowledged.
"They punished us there in the second half. But huge disappointment and no fault to anybody really.
"We have to be hugely proud of Galway and this team and the effort we got all year and today. And that is why it is so hard."
The temptation to apportion some blame to referee James Owens for failing to pull a number of clear frees in the second half was resisted.
Cyril Donnellan was cut down by Padraig Walsh two minutes after the restart and from that Kieran Joyce fed Conor Fogarty for the opening point of the half, Walter Walsh careered into David Collins much later on creating the opening for Colin Fennelly to make the gap five.
But then Galway had their own share of benevolence from the official just before half-time when Johnny Coen took Colin Fennelly down by the neck. Owens produced a yellow. If that's the barometer then it'll be a long time before we see a red at this level again.
"James Owens overall had a fine game but some of the decisions at the start of the half?
"I'm sure when he sits back and looks at it he will be the first to agree that there are a few calls that didn't go our way and probably could have and should have.
"Cyril was through on goals there. There was a '65' that wasn't given. That is two points. There was four in it at the finish. We missed a few chances. We were chasing it.
"Conor Whelan had a goal chance. If I name names, there is no fault to any player.
"That's hurling. They probably went a bit more defensive in the second half and that, coupled with unforced errors from us and a couple of decisions against us."
Beforehand the Galway minors had set the scene with a thrilling win, their ninth since the 1988 senior success to overtake Kilkenny's haul of eight from the same period. The difference is Kilkenny have mined 13 senior titles in the same period. It's quite a staggering contrast.
Cunningham talks of an All-Ireland being within their grasp but with Kilkenny distance is so often an illusion. Those last inches can feel like miles.