No room for backward steps
Galway are hoping to avoid the dangers of a second-season slump, writes Damian Lawlor
FERGAL Moore becomes visibly animated when you mention Galway's habit of vanishing in the years after an All-Ireland final appearance.
It's an unhelpful habit his county has slipped into in their quest to end a run without Liam MacCarthy which stretches back to 1988. And their history suggests that 2013 could become another in their seemingly endless story of suffering.
"The last few times we reached an All-Ireland final we disappeared for a while afterwards, we know about that," Moore accepts. "No one is more aware of it than the players. We know that 2002 and 2006 were extremely poor years for Galway hurling and that represents a huge challenge for the current team. Our only focus is on 2013; the teams of the last few years have come and gone."
Their post-final record certainly makes life easy for the naysayers. In 2001, they qualified for the September showdown after outgunning Kilkenny in the semi-final. Even though they suffered a narrow final defeat to Tipperary, their campaign brimmed with promise, suggesting that they would push on in 2002.
Subsequent seasons, however, spiralled into nightmare territory. They were beaten by Clare in the 2002 All-Ireland quarter-final while their 2003 season started in June and ended in July as they suffered setbacks to Clare (again) and then Tipperary in the qualifiers.
They fared little better in 2004 when they were sent packing by Kilkenny in round two of the qualifiers and faith in the team diminished rapidly until they rallied under Conor Hayes to reach the 2005 All-Ireland final. Having caught Kilkenny in the semi-final they flopped in the final against Cork.
As 2006 dawned, we grabbed the popcorn and took our seats for the sequel. They hammered Laois and Westmeath but the trigger locked when the big guns came to town. Kilkenny gained revenge by eliminating them in July.
They suffered another July exit in 2007 and 2008 also saw their season's sun rise and set almost in the same breath.
The next year was a total downer – they entered Leinster, lost the semi-final and were dumped out of the championship by Waterford.
In 2010, they needed a replay to get past Offaly before being beaten by Kilkenny in the provincial final and Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarters. The wind was still out of their sails a year on when they fell to Dublin in Leinster and then Waterford in the last eight.
Players from that era were lined up and slaughtered as the let-downs racked up. Former manager Hayes was one of those to let fly.
"I'll be shot for saying this," he said in 2011, "but some of these lads' biggest worry with ten minutes to go seems to be whose jersey they'll bring home. When backs are to the wall they don't come out fighting. They remain against the wall. They capitulate too easily."
Brendan Lynskey, a selector during Ger Loughnane's tenure, put the boot in even harder. "My honest opinion is that three or four of the lads on the current senior team are not entitled to be wearing a maroon and white jersey," he said, bluntly. "Why are we afraid to put up our hand to catch the ball? God almighty, fine, you might get a few broken nails or broken fingers – we got them and played on with them. Are we taking the easy options now? I'm trying to be as mild as I can but I just cry with vexation at what's happening in Galway hurling. Our players are a little bit on the shy side. Afraid to put up their hands or a little bit cowardly. Are we prepared to win the hard ball? We're not."
Those comments hit the public domain on the day that Dublin beat them in the 2011 Leinster semi-final in Tullamore. John McIntyre, the manager at the time, needed that damning indictment like a veteran actor needs a savaging from the critics. Yet his players did nothing to change perceptions and another season ended in submission.
Under Anthony Cunningham, the team hit great heights last year, claiming an historic first Leinster title, hitting 28 points per game and only losing to Kilkenny after a replayed All-Ireland final. Surely recent history won't be repeated in 2013.
The players are duty-bound not to let the impetus vanish. Against Kilkenny in Salthill today, they must send out a signal – Galway hurling cannot afford to see yet another generation of players go AWOL.
Moore nearly jumps off the seat at the thought of it. "We're a new team and we have to drive it on ourselves now. There's no point in looking back."
For his part, Cunningham looked almost aghast at the notion of a collapse from this juncture.
"Both players and managers are going to have to handle expectation of the second season," he admitted. "We have to improve – that's the bottom line. We've got to take the league seriously and we'll be trying to retain the Leinster championship and go on and win an All-Ireland.
"You are judged on that really. We are going to put more work into training, more work into lifestyle, more work into coaching, the medical side, every aspect, the same with every team."
Moore doesn't like looking back but admits to having watched tapes of last September's drawn and replayed finals "a good few times" to see what he could learn from it. He knows they let it slip first time out.
"We've had plenty of time for reflection," he smiles wryly. "There are a few reasons why we didn't get over the finishing line. They just performed better in the replay. They used the ball better and were more clinical in possession. They got the chance to drive home and they did that. When we went down to 14 men the day was over for us.
"We can look back on the first day with more regret," he says. "We had chances to win but having said that we were lucky not to lose it in the end. We shot a lot of wides which cost us. Then they came back hard and ground us down. It took Joe's free to get a draw in the end."
They've been back into the thick of hard slog for three months now and January's team holiday to Dubai was as much a training camp as relaxation time. Last weekend a young crop of players looked hungry against Leinster in the interpros and Moore says there is absolutely no hope of players resting on their laurels.
"This season will be taken on its own merits and anything that happened in the past will have no effect on us. Perhaps the only thing I'll look back on 2012 for is the foundation it gives us to build on. Last year was positive in terms of progress made. We had a new team that developed quite well. Ultimately, though, we have to be disappointed. We failed to take the big prize. Every team starts at zero again now. We have a couple more new faces in and there's a lot of completion between the goalkeepers, defenders and forwards."
They must also tap into the goodwill generated by St Thomas' and players like Jonathan Glynn, Conor Cooney and Joseph Cooney must progress further now. A good league is crucial, particularly with their first championship game not taking place until June.
They'll be closely watched by Cunningham, a man with a voracious appetite for success on and off the field. He won't let them choke on their own history.