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Ready for battle

ANTHONY CUNNINGHAM knows a thing or two about black-and-amber jerseys. You could even say those two colours have defined his busiest and most eventful year in management.

The man who led Garrycastle to their first All-Ireland club final last March was ultimately denied by the kings of club football, the black-and-amber of Crossmaglen.

Now Cunningham has brought the Galway hurlers to the cusp of a first All-Ireland senior title since 1988. And, once again, a black-and-amber behemoth stands in the way.

Kilkenny.

For Cunningham, there are obvious parallels between these two superpowers from different codes. Kilkenny under Brian Cody have won eight of the last 13 All-Irelands. Crossmaglen have monopolised the Andy Merrigan Cup like no other club since claiming their first All-Ireland in 1997: they now have six to their name, including the last two.

"Against the Crossmaglens and Kilkennys, they are so good and so well-versed and brilliant at what they do that you have got to take your chances when they present themselves," the Galway boss reflects.

"Maybe we had a couple of chances in the club final; undoubtedly you will get chances against Kilkenny and if you don't take them you'll be punished. Matches turn on a knife edge."

He is speaking from painful experience. In Croke Park last St Patrick's Day, Garrycastle led Crossmaglen by four points at half-time, and by two entering the home straight, but were hanging on for dear life at the finish. Cue the inevitable replay riposte: the once-bitten Armagh men triumphed by 2-19 to 1-7.

On that bleak Breffni Park note ended Cunningham's hugely successful tenure with the Westmeath champions.

Ruthless

The very next day, he was patrolling the Nowlan Park touchline as Kilkenny ruthlessly dismembered his new-look Galway by 3-26 to 0-10. A 25-point National League nightmare. Or, if you prefer, a cumulative 40-point beating in the space of 24 hours by the black-and-amber.

Cunningham quickly agrees with the leading question about April 1 being the lowest day of his debut season as Galway boss. "To be honest, it was embarrassing," he said at the Galway press night in Loughrea.

"The performance that we tried to dish out that day was so far off the mark; it came out of nowhere really. We had been playing quite well. Where it came from was so disappointing for us.

"Really, by the following Thursday night, we had knuckled down to getting our preparation in gear again. The league came very fast this year, five matches in seven weeks was a rollercoaster really. So you hadn't much time to dwell on defeats."

At the time, some sceptics might have ventured that all this double-jobbing had finally caught up on Galway's over-stretched supremo, culminating in the ultimate April Fool's joke. But Dessie Dolan, his star footballer at Garrycastle, rubbishes the notion.

"His enthusiasm is unbelievable. He could be training five times with the hurlers in a week, and you would never once think he was doing anything else, only training us. He gave it that much commitment," says Dolan, "and I presume the Galway hurlers would say the exact same."

Around that time, he caught a few close-up glimpses of Cunningham's work with the hurlers. They were training at Athlone IT; Garrycastle were doing shooting practice at the same venue.



AMAZING

"When they are training, they are absolutely giving 120 per cent. They were literally bouncing off the ground," says the former All Star. "Look at Joe Canning this year -- it's amazing how fit he looks."

Clearly, Cunningham's qualities extend beyond the measurement of bleep tests or body mass indices. Dolan describes a manager who is "very strong on discipline, he cracks the whip and lads respond to him"; an excellent communicator who "keeps people happy"; and also a number one who trusts in his management team.

"He really has belief in the two lads with him," the Westmeath forward points out, in reference to fellow Galway selectors Mattie Kenny and Tom Helebert.

This concept of a management 'team' is forever emphasised by Cunningham himself, and it was typical that their finest hour this year culminated in all three selectors sharing the top table at their post-Leinster final media briefing in Croke Park.

That was the day Galway exacted their own thrilling revenge for Nowlan Park. It was the perfect performance, with one caveat: because it came in July the wound wasn't fatal, and now it's Kilkenny's turn to seek atonement for that 10-point pasting.

Surely, then, Cunningham would prefer to be facing Tipperary this Sunday?

"No, not really," he counters. "I mean, you always want to play the best and Kilkenny have proven they are the best this year. They were the best in the semi-final and we are undefeated this year, so it's a match of the top teams in the country this year, I think that's undisputed.

"I had said that Kilkenny were the team to beat and whoever beat them would win the All-Ireland. But having said that, look at the players they have. They are fantastic players."

Warming to his theme, he continues: "You never hear a Kilkenny player say 'I'm this or I'm that', they're so humble and right through our own days of playing, you never met a Kilkenny player who thought he was above his station.



FEROCIOUS

"As hard as Tommy Walsh is, he'll never fake an injury -- he'll get up and get on again. They're fantastic sportsmen."

But ferociously committed ones too and, as Galway underlined in that Leinster final, you must play it smart but you must also play it hard if you're to topple the reigning champions.

"If you don't match them (physically) you're not going to beat them. You've seen that in the last four or five years now, that the first 10 minutes in the hurling finals have been crunching tackles, so that's going to be no different the next day," Cunningham signs off.

Battle stations at the ready ...


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