Saturday 1 October 2016

Martin Breheny: Tribesmen at the crossroads in both codes

Frustration has been at high tide in Galway for a long time as the hurlers continue to underachieve while the footballers have fallen way behind the top contenders. So what does this year hold?

Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30

Eoghan Kerin is part of a new-look Galway football team. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Eoghan Kerin is part of a new-look Galway football team. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Micheál Donoghue has taken charge of the county’s hurlers. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

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Question: Other than London, which is the only team not to have won three successive Allianz football League games in any of the last six seasons?

Answer: Galway.

That's right - the other 30 counties (Kilkenny don't compete) put three wins together at various stages while Galway failed in 42 games in the 2010-'15 seasons, four of which were in Division 2.

Their only championship treble in the same six seasons came in 2013 when they had narrow wins over Tipperary and Waterford (third and sixth respectively in Division 4) and Armagh (sixth in Division 2).

Bottom line? Galway have been sub-standard and erratic for a long time. Whether one is brought on by the other is unclear but it's where they find themselves now.

Wins over Laois and Derry in recent weeks, separated by a narrow loss to Tyrone, have raised hopes that something positive is happening, albeit with the caveat that it has happened before, only to fizzle out.

However pleasing it might have been for Galway, their win over Derry last Sunday was modest when compared to Roscommon's thumping victory over Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn.

Triumph

In fact, it was a distant third on the Connacht discussion list behind Roscommon's triumph and Mayo's third successive defeat, a fate that hasn't befallen them for a long time.

But then, Mayo and Roscommon are in Division 1, home to the really important action in shaping the main championship contenders, whereas Galway are in Division 2 for a fifth successive term.

It's a long time out of the top flight but they can have no complaints, having finished fourth, sixth, fifth and third over the past four years. Indeed, they were very fortunate not to drop into Division 3 two years ago, surviving via the head-to-head rule after finishing level with Armagh.

It wasn't that Galway hadn't the opportunity to do better in recent years but every time it looked as if they might drive on to towards the promotion zone, they lost impetus.

It happened in Rounds 3, 4, 5 last year when, after beating Meath and Westmeath, they lost to Cavan and Laois at home and Down (away). They finished with wins over Roscommon, who were later promoted, and Kildare but the mid-term damage had been too severe.

A year on, there are new stirrings in Galway. Whether they are real or merely an illusion remains to be seen but the mood is upbeat after six wins from seven games in pre-season and league action. It has raised Galway to second promotion favourites, with games against Meath, Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan to come.

There will a touch of nostalgia in Pearse Stadium tomorrow for the clash with Meath, complete with memories of better days for both around the turn of the Millennium.

When Galway beat Meath in the 2001 All-Ireland final, nobody would have predicted that 15 years on, both would have fallen so far off the main platform.

Meath haven't been in Division 1 for ten years while their sole Leinster title success since 2001 was achieved in such fluky circumstances in 2010 that true Royals don't really regard it as the real thing at all. Galway tumbled out of Division 1 in 2011 but their championship misery extends much further back, having last won the Connacht title in 2008.

It's a depressing vista, which is why any sign of growth is seized upon by supporters, desperate for a return to the glory days.

Still, many of them remain unconvinced that a power surge is imminent but, for now, promotion to Division 1 would be a considerable boost.

Kevin Walsh's attempt to plot a way up is interesting. Only six of the 15 that started against Donegal in last year's Round 4 qualifier lined up against Derry last Sunday and while they were joined by experienced hands, Finian Hanley and Gary Sice as subs, there was a very new look to the squad.

It featured four in defence, including an entirely new full-back line, David Wynne, Declan Kyne and Eoghan Kerin, as well as wing-back, Johnny Heaney, who scored four points from open play.

A spate of injuries left Walsh with no option but to experiment in the Connacht FBD League and the results were pleasing. Several of the newcomers have done well enough to give them first call on selection - for now at least.

Indeed, if Galway are to make real progress, the fresh troops will not only need to cement their places but also make substantial progress because the team just hasn't been good enough so there's no point returning with a failed model.

It's early days in the rebuild and the next test for Galway is whether they can achieve the required consistency to string wins together.

If they achieve it, they will be on their way back to Division 1, which is crucial to their ambitions of becoming an All-Ireland force again.

Ten points is usually enough for promotion from Division 2, presenting Galway with a target of six points from their remaining four games. It leaves little room for error but it's the type of challenge that good teams overcome.

Whether Galway are heading for that territory will become clearer in the coming weeks, starting against a Meath team with confidence issues after defeats by Fermanagh and Cavan. It's a 'must-win' for Galway if they are to convince the doubters that this is a case of genuine progress, as opposed to another false dawn.

The Hurlers

What's that about Galway footballers being unable to string three Allianz League wins together since 2009?

Actually, the hurlers aren't much better, having failed to record a treble since 2010, the last year they won the title. Even more erratically, Galway have not won two successive league games since 2011. It's unreliability at its most damaging and inexplicable.

Nor is it much better in summer as 2012 was the last time Galway won three successive championship games.

The inconsistency hasn't just spread from-game-to-game but from half-to-half, as underlined so disastrously in last year's All-Ireland final.

All the hype about Jackie Tyrrell's inspiring half-time speech made for a lively post-match story but that wasn't what shaped the game Kilkenny's way.

The reality was that they didn't have to raise their performance level by a whole lot to power past Galway, who dropped off at an alarming rate. But then it wasn't the first time that Galway have tailed off disastrously in the second half.

Basically, it comes down to this for new manager Micheál Donoghue: unless he can find a way to stop the bleeding, then Galway's All-Ireland drought will continue.

It's early days for him but he has already experienced the 'fade' factor from the last outing against Dublin, when Galway were outscored by 1-5 to 0-1 in the opening 15 minutes of the second half.

It takes little research to find at least 10 occasions over the last few years when Galway ran into storm periods where they conceded heavily without much response. The ability to minimise the damage during a poor spell is the mark of really good teams in all sports. Sadly for Galway, it's one they have not been able to master.

Unlike in football, where Galway haven't had the required quality to match the top contenders, the hurlers are very much at the top end of the market on their better days.

That makes the frustration - both for the players themselves and the supporters - all the more acute, although sympathy for the squad will scarce if they don't get it right this year.

Their successful campaign to remove Anthony Cunningham left the clear impression that they blamed him for last year's All-Ireland final defeat. Quite how that could have any validity is a mystery since Galway were leading when they left the dressing-room for the second half, only to implode so spectacularly that they scored a mere four points in normal time.

Besides, Cunningham wasn't in charge last Saturday week; nor were there tales of epic motivational speeches in the Dublin dressing-room at half-time, yet Galway collapsed in the third quarter. Different manager, different opposition, different venue, same story.

Donoghue will have his own ideas on how to rectify Galway's problems and, in fairness, deserves time to work on it but, unfortunately for him, it's not that simple.

Similar to Stephen Rochford in Mayo, the pressure is intense as he is taking on a squad that has been close to winning All-Ireland titles so anything less than capturing the big prize will be deemed a failure.

The challenges facing Donoghue are two-fold. Apart from trying to straighten the psychological kink that has undermined Galway so often, he must decide how many of last year's squad are good enough to retain their places.

Omission

Cunningham made several changes for 2015, many of which worked well, but more may be necessary. Even if that involves the omission of some big names with long service, so be it.

Donoghue becomes the seventh Galway manager to joust with Brian Cody over the last 17 years, following Mattie Murphy, Noel Lane, Conor Hayes, Ger Loughnane, John McIntyre and Cunningham.

Lane, Hayes and Cunningham presided over championship wins against Kilkenny, without going on to win the All-Ireland.

Donoghue will get his first taste of what it's like against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park tomorrow, a game that's of immense significance for Galway.

The anaemic display against Dublin demands a determined response which, when coupled with the memory of their dismal second-half display in the All-Ireland final, should see Galway powering into every tackle, tangle and tussle with unrelenting zeal.

But then, that has to be the basic requirement every time they play, which makes their performance against Dublin so difficult to understand at the start of a season where they have so much to prove.

Once again, Galway hurling is at a crossroads. But then, it has become something of a permanent home for them.

Irish Independent

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