Sunday 26 January 2020

Joe Brolly: Until they ditch the comfort blanket, Galway will stay in twilight zone

Galway manager Kevin Walsh celebrates with his captain Damien Comer after their Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship victory. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Galway manager Kevin Walsh celebrates with his captain Damien Comer after their Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship victory. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
‘Eamonn Fitzmaurice remembered where he is from and what it’s all about’. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

A hurling friend of mine from Dungiven was in Kilkenny recently and went to see their senior hurlers training. When hurling was revived in the town in the late 1960s, we were given huge support by the Kilkenny County Board, who supplied us with jerseys, sliotars and hurls, probably the first weapons smuggled across the border during the Troubles. Some of the boys on those early Dungiven team were bad enough unarmed.

Brian Cody and his Freshford team used to come to the town to play in a tournament every year. Eddie Keher stayed in our house. So, my friend from the town was welcomed with open arms in Nowlan Park.

To the Dungiven man's delight, the Cats were playing a full A v B game. Cody was refereeing. He threw the ball in and they went at it, hurling as though their lives depended upon it. The next time he blew the whistle was for half-time, by which point there had been at least three pulling matches over the sideline and one player had to go off injured.

The second half followed the same pattern, with the last quarter particularly ferocious. Not a single free was awarded. On 70 minutes, Cody blew the whistle for the second and last time. As Cody was coming off the pitch, my friend went towards him and they warmly shook hands. "Brian," he said, "a whistle would do you a good long time."

It is a great insight into the psyche of Cody's teams. I marvelled at them again last week. Outgunned and out-skilled by a brilliant, powerful Galway team, they hurled ferociously, diving into tackles, chasing opponents until their lungs must have been bursting, using their hands to block if they had lost their hurls. I wrote afterwards that watching Kilkenny hurlers is one of the greatest sights in world sport.

They lost to the champions after 140 minutes of war, but in truth it was a victory for all that is great about sport - the sort of courage, ambition, and refusal to quit that is never forgotten. Something more important than sport. The crux is individual responsibility.

Galway manager Kevin Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway manager Kevin Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile

Kerry, having been unsure of how they ought to play over the last four years, began to look like any other dull Gaelic football team rolling off the factory production line. They abandoned their values. The manager, confronted with Donegal-type systems, fell for the delusion that skill-based Gaelic football is old-fashioned, even embarrassing. So Kerry teams began to look mass-produced. A withdrawn half-forward line of workers; defenders in the forward line; sweepers . . .

As a result, their confidence faltered and last year, they hit the bottom when they were easily beaten in a replay (which they were lucky to get) against a Mayo team who just a few weeks earlier looked like boys who had only just met each other.

Kerry's sweeper system in those games handed Andy Moran the Player of the Year award, even though he only played 50 minutes per game and was on the verge of retirement. The day of the replay, Kerry - with their modern sweeper system and withdrawn half-forwards - were an embarrassment to the green and gold.

2018-07-14_spo_42489060_I1.png
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice Photo: Sportsfile

Since then, Eamonn Fitzmaurice - who must have been on the verge of being axed - has remembered where he is from and what it's all about. He has picked the best players in the county in the right positions.

Out with the shadowing and pointing, and in with the man-marking. Out with the handpassing/soloing forward because there is no one to kick it to and in with an electrifying front six. Individual responsibility. No hiding.

They thrashed their way through Munster like the buckos from the golden years in '75, playing mesmerising football, even better than the Dubs in Leinster. Mind you, the Dungiven over 35s would beat Cork.

Galway, meanwhile, remain unsure of how they should be playing. Kevin Walsh said a few months ago that they had a plan A, plan B and plan C. That is okay for an American football team, where the play breaks every few seconds and the game restarts. But in the chaos of a big Gaelic football match, systems schizophrenia results in uncertainty. And when players become unsure, they are done for. Think Kerry last year. Or Tyrone in the other semi-final last year too, when a group of highly talented footballers looked like infants who had lost their mammies in the supermarket.

Against Dublin in the league, Galway remained stuck in their defensive shell in Salthill and again in the league final in Croke Park. That day, Dublin were a man down for 27 minutes, against the breeze, yet Galway refused to push up and take advantage, instead labouring towards inevitable defeat. Walsh described it as a work in progress but that was just an excuse.

They didn't learn from that game at all. Instead, the work progressed in exactly the same pattern against a poor Mayo side (minus Lee Keegan). For most of the game, Galway had an extra man after Diarmuid O'Connor was sent off. Yet they remained in their 1-13-1 formation, Damien Comer labouring in the middle of the blanket and their stellar forwards wasting their time in an off-the-shelf-Tyrone-game-plan.

In injury time, Mayo went a point up after Kevin McLoughlin scored. Only a goal conjured out of nothing won it for Galway at the death. The goal was a snapshot of what these Galway forwards are capable of if they are allowed to play. We saw a little more of that in the second half against Roscommon, when having been picked off in their dull, predictable defensive shell in the first half, they had to push up a bit and won, even if they weren't in the slightest bit convincing, and Roscommon missed a bagful of chances.

Galway could be great. They have the players to do it. But I suspect Kevin Walsh hasn't learned the lessons of this year's league and championship, and like Tyrone last year, he is now deluded into believing that the blanket defence will wear the better teams down and allow them to poach enough scores to win. This is okay in the league and against lesser teams. But it will not win an All-Ireland, since this system is inflexible, does not empower their excellent forwards and takes away individual responsibility. This is why a blanket defensive team looks powerless when they go four or five points behind.

Those Kilkenny A v B games are the essence of it all. Push yourself to your limits. You were fouled? Don't look at me. No one can help you. Your opponent is flying? Just go harder. No one can help you.

The foundation stone for any great team is that they are certain about how they are going to play the game. In turn, this depends on each man individually taking responsibility. Cody's teams are feared because they have no doubt about what their duty is when the whistle blows. The culture is individual responsibility. No player shirks, and when this happens, each player trusts every other player, and the team becomes voracious. Dublin get this. Kilkenny always have. Kerry have ditched the distractions and are suddenly very clear about how they want to play. Unless Galway do the same, they will labour in the same twilight zone as Tyrone: formidable in the league, but not counting on the biggest days.

I don't think Walsh is ready to ditch the comfort blanket. Kerry to win.

GALWAY v KERRY

RESULTS SO FAR

Galway 1-12 Mayo 0-12 (Connacht quarter-final)

Galway 4-24 Sligo 1-12 (Connacht semi-final)

Galway 0-16 Roscommon 2-6 (Connacht final)

Kerry 0-32 Clare 0-10 (Munster semi-final)

Kerry 3-18 Cork 2-4 (Munster final)

TOP SCORERS

Galway: S Walsh 0-16 (7f), D Comer 2-6, I Burke 1-5, S Kelly 1-4

Kerry: P Geaney 2-12 (1f), S O'Shea 0-11 (5f, 1'45), J O'Donoghue 0-7 (3f), S O'Brien 1-3

LAST FIVE CHAMPIONSHIP MEETINGS

2017: Kerry 1-18 Galway 0-13 (All-Ireland quarter-final)

2014: Kerry 1-20 Galway 2-10 (All-Ireland quarter-final)

2008: Kerry 1-21 Galway 1-16 (All-Ireland quarter-final)

2002: Kerry 2-17 Galway 1-12 (All-Ireland quarter-final)

2000: Kerry 0-17 Galway 1-10 (All-Ireland final replay)

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Schools rugby special - 'The St Michael’s dream team are the side to beat'

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport