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Vincent Hogan: Have Galway become a soft touch?

"Manliness was a central part of that squad. There were no whingers or cry babies."

Cyril Farrell on the Galway team of the 80s in his autobiography, 'The Right to Win'.

Brendan Lynskey pauses, as if to gather his words into more orderly bundles. He is angry. Not irritable or uneasy, but stridently, palpably angry.

"I'm trying to say this without blowing a head gasket," he sighs. "But there's a problem here in Galway..."

Conor Hayes is on first-name terms with Lynskey's "problem." Having guided the county to their last All-Ireland final appearance in 2005, he stepped down one year later, exasperated.

He talks now of a "culture of excuses" in Galway hurling. "People will be down my throat now when they read this," says the last man to carry the Liam MacCarthy Cup west.

"I don't care, let them talk away. I've seen it at close quarters."

Noel Lane's frustration is asterisked by an innate reluctance to be seen as opportunistic or unfair. "I hate ever questioning players," says the manager of the 2001 defeated All-Ireland finalists.

"But you have to ask do they not have the mental toughness or physical ruthlessness, that savage will to win? And there's only one way for them to answer that question."

NOBODY KNOWS QUITE what awaits Galway tonight in Tullamore. Nobody ever knows. Twenty-three years after their last senior All-Ireland win, Galway are still -- habitually -- touted as serious contenders for the MacCarthy Cup.

Why? Maybe because they've won two of the last six All-Ireland U-21 crowns and three of the last seven at minor grade. Maybe because Galway's champions have won four of the last six All-Ireland club titles.

The raw material is, apparently, there.

Yet, since Galway's swashbuckling defeat of Kilkenny in the '05 semi-final, they have not even progressed beyond the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.

Worse, their record of wins in properly competitive championship fixtures during that period reads an abysmal -- played 14, won 4.

Those four wins, it should be said, were all claimed under the current management. Galway's only victories of '06 were against Laois (7-18 to 2-13) and Westmeath (3-21 to 0-6), while Ger Loughnane's two years in charge also decanted only victories against Laois (two) and Antrim.

You can detect, then, more than the usual amount of electricity fizzing around tonight's engagement with league champions Dublin.

There may be nothing more tiresome to the modern player than old soldiers carping about lost glory.

Yet, the uniformity of opinion from three members of the last Galway team to win a senior All-Ireland can't be blithely disregarded either.

All three are unequivocal in a belief that defeat tonight will, essentially, terminate another championship season for Galway. For they see the qualifiers as a death march to oblivion.

So, tonight is freighted with uncommon tension.

You ask Lynskey is he pessimistic? "Very," he says bluntly.

Having served as a selector during Loughnane's first season as Galway manager, the teak-tough former All Star centre-forward believes the county inculcates too many bad habits in its young players.

"Galway win an All-Ireland minor and, all of a sudden, these lads' heads become as big as buckets," says Lynskey. "They're on Galway Bay FM, they're down in Supermacs, they're opening up this, opening up that, signing jerseys. There's too much made of them.

"We're making superstars out of middling hurlers in Galway, blowing up bad hurlers as good.

"And they end up putting on the jersey as if they're entitled to it. They're not entitled to it.

"In fact, 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 at all."

Hayes looked to have ignited something remarkable six years ago when Galway fired a scarcely believable 5-18 past Kilkenny in one of the most spectacular championship games ever seen. But they were relatively subdued in the subsequent final against Cork and haven't been anywhere close to that precinct since.

For the captain of the winning teams of '87 and '88, the slow unraveling of focus was difficult to stomach.

"What we built up in '05, just all drifted away again," says Hayes. "They couldn't be spoken to. They knew it all, had everything sussed. They were the next Kilkenny. The next Cork. The attitude was, 'Yeah, this is it. We've made it!'

"As if winning an All-Ireland was inevitable.

"One of the issues I had with Galway was: I found them to be very much a bunch of individuals. And, when you're losing, the individual goes to mind himself and nobody else.

"When you got them all going together, they were capable of brilliance.

"But I found it difficult to instil a team ethic into them. I'll be shot for saying this, but some of these lads' biggest worry with 10 minutes to go seemed to be whose jersey they'd bring home.

"I know it'll be fired back at me that I'm talking s***e, only trying to cover up the fact that I didn't get it out of them myself.

"But that's what I found. When backs are to the wall, they don't come out fighting. They remain against the wall. They capitulate too easily."

Like Lynskey, Hayes believes that far more is made of minor victories in Galway than is perhaps healthy.

The arithmetic, he says, casts doubt on the value of minor All-Irelands to future senior teams.

"I find myself wondering how high is the standard of minor hurling," says Hayes. "And I don't mean that as any disrespect to Mattie Murphy, who has a great system in place here.

"But you hear fellas picking teams in Galway now with Joe Canning at full-forward and some lad who's maybe 16 in the corner beside him. That'd be a great team, wouldn't it?

"You say to them 'But he's only 16!'

"And you get, 'Ah yeah, but when he comes through...'

"Senior hurling is a completely different game to minor hurling.

"But clubs and families are making living gods out of young players in Galway. Next thing, they're picked to play with the seniors and they don't know what's hit them.

"John Gardiner or JJ Delaney isn't going to shake hands with you and say 'Jaysus, you're the famous Galway minor!'

"So, 20 minutes into the game, the young fella is wondering, 'Why isn't this happening for me?'"

Lane expresses a high regard for the current senior management team. Indeed, he suggests that a reflex of culling managers after each big-day disappointment has served Galway poorly since '88.

If the team fails to perform now, he doesn't doubt that there will be "a strong heave" against John McIntyre.

"Do that and the whole thing starts again," he says.

"The players want continuity, but we've a funny set-up here where you get a couple of years to win an All-Ireland.

"There's nothing in terms of a long-term strategy.

"County boards, hurling boards and supporters can have very low patience thresholds and I think the huge turnover of managers has had a negative impact on Galway hurling.

"If they go that way again this year, you'll have young fellas like Joe Canning wondering what the hell is going on."

But what is the strength of McIntyre's hand now?

THE TEAM'S NATIONAL LEAGUE campaign petered out limply after a Pearse Stadium thrashing by Tipperary that Lane recalls as "unforgiveable."

Yet, Hayes identifies last year's Leinster final against Kilkenny as the day that annoyed him most.

"In my opinion, they literally walked away from that game," he says. "Apart from Damien Hayes, I felt they didn't put up any kind of a fight at all.

"Looking at them, I don't think they tried that day. And there's nothing worse than not trying."

Lynskey delves into a specific that, endlessly, fuels his ire now. He sees this Galway team as catastrophically weak in the air. Worse, he suspects that weakness to be born of physical fear.

"Loughnane tried to change this, to his credit," says Lynskey. "He brought in a machine to try and get fellas catching the ball. But it didn't work because I firmly believe it's too late if they haven't been doing it at minor level.

"Our players have got to start winning puck-outs, not bat them. Why are we afraid to put up our hand to catch the ball? Like, what is wrong with these guys?

"If you're an inter-county hurler, you're an inter-county hurler.

"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. We are just not winning primary possession.

"All we're doing is batting the ball out to midfield, where we're probably getting bet anyway.

"All the top managers in the country know what we're going to do. Their midfield just has to sit deep and, the minute we bat the ball, it's 'thank you very much...'

"GET YOUR HANDS ON THE BALL! Print that please. If you're refusing to put your hand up even to win your own puck-outs, then my God almighty how are you going to win games? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."

Galway's team selection this week suggests that McIntyre is aware of this as a pressing issue.

There is little enough criticism of his management skills from any of the 80s team, albeit Lynskey is inclined to question whether or not he knows his "best 15."

In spite of the laboured quarter-final defeat of Westmeath recently, there is widespread acknowledgement too that Galway's presence in Leinster has been a positive.

"The system is much fairer," says Hayes. "Beat Dublin now and they can kick on. Actually, I think they have a real chance of winning a Leinster title here. But that's the thing, they have to kick on."

IF THIS IS ABOUT A GENERATIONAL divide, at least Lane, Hayes and Lynskey have more than their medals to defend them now. All have tried to return Galway to the hurling summit and, if each fell short to different degrees, they can't -- at least -- be accused of sermonising from ivory towers.

For all three, patience has simply been worn down to a thread.

Maybe Lynskey expresses it most candidly.

"The time for talking is over now," he says. "As Johnny Cash sang, it's time to 'Walk the line!' And you can print that. This is it now.

"No more telling us what we want to hear, sending out the right vibes, lawdee, dawdee, daw.

"You see, there's a perception, wrongly, here in Galway that if we'd beaten Tipperary last year, we'd have won the All-Ireland. Well I can guarantee you we would not. Kilkenny would have blown us off the field.

"So, it's about the players now. No more excuses, no more nothing. Make it personal. Show the county some respect and go and do it."

Hayes, too, believes that that narrow loss to Tipp last July merely spun an illusion.

"People have been singing their praises for that," he says. "But, if Galway had played Tipp in the All-Ireland final at that level, they'd have been beaten by 13 or 14 points.

"I don't think Galway have any excuses anymore. And, while I don't want to be raising Dublin's hackles, to lose this game now would be to lose at a level that should be below Galway's. I know they are worrying about this game.

"But, without being arrogant, Galway should be able to beat Dublin."

Lane suspects that defeat tonight could have "a seriously adverse effect on Galway hurling." He says: "I think we're on very thin ice here. There's an awful lot of doubt around.

"Galway have so much success at minor, U-21 and club level, the public are kind of wondering what the hell is going on.

"This team is at a crossroads and I think pride has to come into the equation. If people are questioning their ruthlessness, well there's only one way to answer that.

"I see this as a milestone for Galway hurling. It's a very critical game."

More on the line than the bourgeosie scalp of new champions.

Irish Independent