Perfect time for Galway to lay down a marker
Published 22/02/2013 | 04:00
For the opening league match of 2010 Liam Sheedy knew his Tipperary team had to lay down a marker against visiting league and All-Ireland champions Kilkenny.
Tipp had been inching ever closer to them since their Nowlan Park league mauling the previous spring, pushing them to extra-time in the league final and going so close in the All-Ireland final four months later.
To sustain progress, Sheedy knew they would have to hit their rivals at one of their strongest points. Under Brian Cody, Kilkenny have never been cavalier about the league. In particular, they have never been cavalier about the opening round.
Only once in Cody's stewardship have they lost their first league game – back in 1999 when Cork turned them over by 0-14 to 1-9 in his first competitive outing.
Since then, even as All-Ireland champions in eight of the subsequent 13 first-round league matches that Cody has overseen, they have remained unbeaten, pausing only to draw with Dublin, 2-13 to Kilkenny's 0-19, in early 2009.
At a time when they might be at their most vulnerable, Kilkenny have quite often been at their strongest. Sheedy may have got a sense of that three years ago, staking much on their Semple Stadium opener as a potential ambush.
Twice, however, in the space of three days it was postponed due to snow that fell in the hours beforehand. When the match did go ahead the following month, Tipperary laid down that marker, Sheedy and Cody jousting on the sideline in a sub-plot to the afternoon before Tipp's All-Ireland final triumph six months later.
In the meantime, Kilkenny got their league campaign off to a winning start by beating Limerick by 0-15 to 0-14 in their second-round match, thus preserving that most impressive opening-day account under Cody.
It is in that context that Galway host the All-Ireland champions on Sunday.
Beating this Kilkenny team may not provide the same psychological lift it gave Sheedy's Tipperary in 2010 as Galway have already achieved success over Kilkenny in last year's Leinster final.
But with the Leinster championship draw shaped the way it is for them – as Leinster champions they have received a bye into the semi-finals – there is an imperative for Galway remaining as competitive as they can possibly be in this earlier part of the season and getting on the front foot early will again be a priority for Anthony Cunningham.
The layout of Division 1A is such that five of the six teams will have involvement beyond the final round anyway.
The benefit of the two relegation games against Dublin last April could be found in the shape Galway took on those weekends. Thirteen of the 15 who started the replay against Dublin shook hands with the presidential party four months later on All-Ireland final day.
Only goalkeeper James Skehill and corner-forward James Regan were missing in April as Fergal Flannery and Davy Glennon deputised.
Such prolonged activity served them well, helping them to resolve any issues that may have arisen in the heavy Nowlan Park defeat to Kilkenny earlier in the month.
In fact, the cut-throat nature of those games and the pressure involved was arguably more beneficial in Galway's stage of development than progress to a semi-final might have been.
This year, however, it's different. Now they must believe and think like potential champions and that starts on Sunday against a team that provided more than half (eight) of a Leinster team defeated by a makeshift Connacht fielding exclusively from Galway with just four All-Ireland final starters.
The profile of that Galway team and what they achieved last Sunday underlines the growing strength in depth that they are adding.
The impact from the periphery in and between both All-Ireland finals wasn't nearly as significant for Galway as it was for Kilkenny, Glennon and replay goalscorer Johnny Glynn apart.
But within six months Galway's base already looks more formidable. Shane Kavanagh has been recalled, Aengus Callinan has returned from his travels and Niall Healy is clocking up returns in pre-season matches in the Walsh Cup reminiscent of his better days.
Galway's requirement for more scoring forwards will prompt greater examination in the weeks ahead of a player who has divided opinion in the county for as long as he has been around.
Padraig Brehony and Shane Moloney, stars of the 2011 minor team, may be 'lightly raced' in the earlier part of the year but the current management's propensity to embrace younger players quicker will ensure footfall for the pair of them by the summer.
Considerable interest will focus on the incumbent for centre-back in the season ahead. It is, by some distance, the biggest call the management will make in 2013.
Tony Og Regan had shortcomings in the All-Ireland replay but successive Galway managements have found themselves repeatedly drawn towards him for the No 6 shirt.
Interestingly, Joseph Cooney was posted there for Connacht last Sunday and he will again fill the position against KIlkenny.
Galway got so much right in a short space of time during Cunningham's first season in terms of organisation and fitness.
Donegal and Jim McGuinness have somewhat debunked the myth of the 'second-season syndrome' in Gaelic games, that a team that makes significant progress in year one of new management is prone to taking a step back in year two.
Ending a 14-year-old record that illustrates so much about Cody's Kilkenny would be the perfect early-season signal that the advancement will continue.