Tuesday 20 February 2018

Tribesmen's crisis of identity

Galway football is at a low ebb but at least things can't get worse, writes John O'Brien

When he found himself in Killarney before Galway played Kerry in the league last March, Jim Carney beat the well-trodden path to Jimmy O'Brien's pub in Fair Hill. Jimmy's pub, 40 years old this month, is an institution in Kerry football and Carney was among old friends here. He mingled with the GAA stalwarts and old Kerry footballers that comprise Jimmy's clientele and soaked up the warmth and cheer of their hospitality.

Inevitably the talk turned to football and things took a turn for the worse. It wasn't that the Kerry lads got edgy and started pummelling him with a few low blows and sly digs. It was the absence of any edge at all that troubled Carney. "They were quite sympathetic actually," he says now. "They were feeling sorry for Galway football, wondering what happened to us. It was a bit depressing really."

Carney was there in his official role as editor of the Tuam Herald, in little doubt he was performing the grim task of reporting on another bad day for Galway football. Sure enough, Kerry inflicted a leisurely eight-point defeat, Galway's fourth in succession in a miserable campaign that would see just one victory in seven outings. Not that anyone seemed unduly shocked or alarmed, however. That's how deep the rot had set in.

In his Irish Times column on Wednesday, Darragh ó Sé paid a backhanded tribute to the Connacht championship. The former Kerry midfielder's contention was that a Connacht title had assumed a significance that outstripped the other three provinces. Not because it had an intrinsic value the others lacked, however, but because a provincial title was as much as any of them could aspire to over the course of a championship season.

"Maybe it's just a reflection of where the counties in the west find themselves at the minute," ó Sé wrote. "If you're being straight up and clinical about it, you'd have to say none of them will win the All-Ireland this year and, in fact, they don't look any way close to winning one. That's what makes their provincial championship so valuable."

Many of the views ó Sé expressed about Connacht sounded patronising, but they were underscored by a brutal truth. There's still a tendency to view Galway as a blue-chip football power -- if not in the top bracket then at the top of the next at least -- but fresh evidence to prove it is scarce. If ó Sé was damning them with faint praise, then it was merely an expression of the sentiment Carney heard in Killarney last March on a national stage.

Perhaps we've been too preoccupied with the annual kerfuffle that revolves around the hurlers to truly notice the downward spiral of the footballers. It's 10 years now since they took advantage of the new

back door system to claim the county's ninth All-Ireland title and, although it was obvious that John O'Mahony's brilliant but ageing team was approaching the end of its lifespan, it was hard to figure that they would simply slip off the radar, as if they had reached the summit and then, collectively, flung themselves off the mountain top.

True, they would annex three of the next four Connacht championships, but their real worth was measured not against their provincial rivals, but on the killing fields far from the province. In the 2002 All-Ireland quarter-final, Kerry turned them over by eight points, much the same Kerry team that had been demolished by Meath in the previous year's semi-final, whom Galway had then routed by nine points in the final. In just a year, apparently, Kerry had sailed off over the horizon.

Away from Connacht the past decade has brought nothing but misery heaped upon misery. Galway's record in Croke Park, for instance, shows that they have played six championship games since 2001 and won none of them. Add a narrow defeat against Kerry in the 2004 league final and you build a picture of a once-feared county travelling to Dublin with a sense of trepidation, unable to feel confident about beating even the most ordinary teams.

In recent years Galway have developed a deep-rooted tendency to exit the championship with a whimper. In 2006, they were beaten in round four of the qualifiers by Westmeath, who were ransacked by Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final. A year later they lost by a goal to Meath who were slaughtered by Cork in the semi-final. In 2009, they lost to a Donegal team who were taken apart by Cork in the next round.

All they could manage last year was a solitary win against New York while Sligo and Wexford, who ended their interest in the championship, departed tamely themselves at the hands of Down and Cork respectively. For Galway, there is an alarming pattern here: subdued consistently by counties with little chance themselves of being there at the business end of the championship. "If we were a racehorse," says Carney, "you'd say the horses haven't franked the form next time out."

Of the team that lines out for this afternoon's Connacht semi-final in Castlebar, Joe Bergin and Pádraic Joyce remain from the All-Ireland winning side of 2001. Joyce was imperious in that final, kicking 10 of Galway's 17-point tally, and a grand total of 3-45 in that year's championship. They are glad that he is still on board, of course, but Joyce is 34 now and, even alongside a fit Michael Meehan, Galway are arguably more reliant on him now than they were back then and that is a distinctly unhealthy state of affairs.

All told, looking for shards of light is a tough business. "Look, all counties experience highs and lows," says Alan Mulholland who manages the county's under 21s. "It's not anybody's fault in particular. The fact is we haven't been competitive since 2001 in the way we'd like. We have to hold our hands up and say we haven't done well. We've failed."

Given that Mulholland guided the Galway minors to an All-Ireland title in 2007 and followed it with an under 21 All-Ireland this year, it is hard to square that success with the perception that Galway have failed to develop a production line of talent in line with other successful counties. Yet he is enough of a pragmatist to know that winning sporadic underage titles brings no guarantee of future senior success.

It encourages Mulholland that three of his All-Ireland winning under 21 team -- Colin Forde, John Duane and Mark Hehir -- will feature against Mayo today. And Paul Conroy, who lines out alongside Joyce at full-forward, was a star of the 2007 minor team. It represents progress, he thinks, although there is still room for much more.

"We can produce underage talent but it's something we've got to do year in year out. It's not much good producing a great minor team one year and then having nothing for years afterwards. Each year has to be competitive. And I think we've had decent underage teams consistently for a few years now so I wouldn't share the doom and gloom about the future."

Since 2001 their struggles have been most pronounced at midfield. Losing the likes of Michael Donnellan, Ja Fallon and Tomás Mannion was always going to leave a void, but the retirement of Kevin Walsh left the biggest vacuum of all.

Bergin won his 2001 All-Ireland medal wearing No 10 but, long term, they saw him as a leader and natural successor to Walsh. That evolution never happened, though. That he is restored to midfield today, alongside Finian Hanley, is seen as a major gamble by Tomás ó Flatharta.

Again Mulholland sees hope for the future. This year's under 21 pairing of Tomás Flynn and Fionntan ó Curraoin offered signs that the physical, imposing presence offered by Walsh might some day be replicated. There was a mini-clamour for Flynn to be ushered through but because he was sitting his Leaving Certificate, ó Flatharta resisted the temptation to call on his services. For all their needs, they still had to do the right thing.

In a way the situation with Flynn is a microcosm of their problems as a whole. Doing the right thing for Galway football has always entailed following a tradition that harks back to greats like Seán Purcell and Frank Stockwell who played the game in a certain way. O'Mahony's team adhered rigidly to the blueprint and won many admirers for the purity of their football and ability to kick passes and long-range scores.

A decade without success and they begin to wonder now. When they lost a high-scoring, entertaining game to Kerry in the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final, some credited manager Liam Sammon for the quality of Galway's football while others questioned an approach that saw them go toe to toe with a superior team. With the tactical revolution of the noughties, they argued, Galway with their dreamy notions of a purer age were being left behind. Tactically outdated and naive.

In that light it is possible to view the curious experiment with Joe Kernan and last year's appointment of ó Flatharta as Galway's attempt to move with the times, seeking to blend their traditional style with a new defensive-minded toughness. But it has seemed too half-hearted, feeding a chronic identity crisis where Galway end up being neither one thing nor the other. Hanley neatly condensed the debate during the week, pointing out the strength of feeling for the old ways while offering the important qualifier that football today is increasingly a "results business".

"It's complicated," says Mulholland. "Everyone involved in Galway football is conscious of it. There's a brand of Galway football and people are very wary about compromising it. We're Galway football. Is it acceptable to compromise? 1966, 1998, 2001. Ten years on and we're still trying to play Galway football. It's nice to have that but two All-Irelands in 40-odd years? Would people prefer to win All-Irelands?"

So many questions they need to address as a matter of urgency. As things stand, they will wonder what lies in store for them this summer, perhaps clinging to the solitary ray of hope, if they dare, that as bad as things are, they surely can't get much worse.

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