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Mulholland driving for redemption

To stick or twist? That's the debate engaging Galway football this week as they prepare for the visit of Kildare to Salthill and what is effectively a Division 2 semi-final -- with a place in a Croke Park league final three weeks later and Division 1 football in 2012 at stake.

Promotion is always a prize worth fighting for, but is it a prize Galway really need at this stage of their rebuild project under manager Alan Mulholland? Is it too soon to expect them to compete with the likes of Kerry, Cork and Dublin on a weekly basis again?

"It is a debate the county is currently having," concedes Mulholland. "It won't be the end of the world if we don't go back up straight away, but if we do we'll be delighted.

"It will really focus our minds from late summer to the beginning of February next year. We'll take our chances."

Galway's previous two managers, Joe Kernan and Tomas O Flatharta, had one foot on the trapdoor to Division 2. Kernan stepped to safety with successive wins over Tyrone and Dublin, but O Flatharta plunged downwards on the back of six straight defeats before they drew with Dublin.

The experience of those two campaigns suggested that a spell in Division 2 would do no harm for Mulholland, who is picking up the pieces from three disappointing seasons since the Tribesmen's last Connacht title in 2008.

Not much they have done so far in the campaign would suggest that they are ready for Division 1 again.

But they find themselves in the perfect position on Sunday, within one match of returning to the top flight without much pressure to do so.

"It's a shot to nothing for us and we'll take it," said Mulholland. "You hear managers saying how they'd like to target promotion in a specific year but here we are one game away this week.

"I'd rather be in that position than have to come back and play seven again next season to get back to Division 1."

Their results and performances have been quite erratic. The campaign got off to a flying start with an away win against Derry, but the value of that has diminished a little with the Oak Leafers moderate subsequent form.


Taking only one point from four against Louth at home and Westmeath away gave Galway what Mulholland felt was "a reality check" but they have steadied the ship somewhat with wins over Meath and Monaghan and a creditable display against Tyrone.

"If a few things had gone right for us against Tyrone we might have won that game," he said. "We have been a little bit inconsistent. We played well against the so-called stronger teams like Derry, Meath and Monaghan, but struggled against Louth and Westmeath.

"I suppose being inconsistent goes with the territory of having a young and somewhat inexperienced team. We have to find that level of consistency we need.

"But we're happy to have achieved our most immediate goal which was to stay in the division. Galway football needs stability and consistency before it can start moving forward again."

Not everything has gone their way in terms of personnel available. Promising midfielder Fiontan O Curraoin injured an ankle in a Sigerson Cup semi-final playing for DCU at the end of February and underwent an operation two weeks ago.

Mulholland is resigned to being without him for the first round of the championship.

Sean Armstrong's hamstring woes have continued. Having worked his way back, Armstrong suffered a recurrence and also broke a small bone in his knee.

And Michael Meehan's ankle injury is still under rehabilitation, with his career very much at a crossroads.

Mulholland envisages Meehan playing a couple of club matches in the weeks after Sunday's final round and Armstrong returning to training next week.

"It's another good incentive to win on Sunday as with three weeks those players could have something to aim at," Mulholland said.

His sound man-management has created a good atmosphere, albeit in the less pressurised atmosphere of Division 2.

He was careful not to make public the parameters of his squad when he took on the job and steered a diplomatic course on the subject of Padraic Joyce.

The temptation for a young new manager to come in and cut loose someone like Joyce, who has had such a strong dressing-room presence, may have been there but Mulholland resisted it, making space for Galway's most celebrated player of modern times to come back in, and he rewarded that position with a very effective cameo in Longford last weekend.

Clearly Joyce, 35 last Sunday, has a big role to play with Galway in the months ahead, even if it's in an impact capacity off the bench, which seemed to suit him last Sunday.

There are other encouraging footnotes to the first league campaign under Mulholland.

Gareth Bradshaw has developed into a real leader, who is relishing the responsibility of being vice captain, while Paul Conroy has been arguably their next best player and is beginning to realise his potential. His three points to lift the siege against Monaghan were evidence of leadership qualities emerging.

The suspicion is that Tyrone and Kildare, despite their indifferent start, are a bit ahead of the rest in the division and best placed to cope with the demands of Division 1 football again next season.

Galway can't really lose when they test out that suspicion on Sunday.

Irish Independent