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'We'll never change the Galway style – it's in our DNA'

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Galway manager Alan Mulholland

Galway manager Alan Mulholland

SPORTSFILE

Galway manager Alan Mulholland

SCARCELY a day has gone by since the 2013 championship draws were made 32 weeks ago last Thursday that Alan Mulholland hasn't thought about tomorrow's clash with Mayo.

The start of the new playing season was still three months away and, when it started, an Allianz League campaign had to be planned for but, in the background, May 19 was always ringed on the Galway manager's calendar.

"The whole winter training process was geared towards Mayo on May 19. It's unusually early for a Galway-Mayo game so we had to be conscious of that. No question, it has been a long build-up but we had one eye on next Sunday all the way through," said Mulholland.

By 5.30 tomorrow evening, the efficiency of that programme and the current status of Galway senior football will have become much clearer after their latest showdown with a Mayo squad that arrives at Pearse Stadium as All-Ireland runners-up and with a two-year championship record which reads: played 10, won 8, lost 2.

The defeats were against Kerry two years ago and Donegal last year but, interestingly, Mayo beat the reigning All-Ireland champions in 2011 (Cork) and 2012 (Dublin) as well as winning the Connacht two-in-a-row for the first time since 1996-97.

That's a solid consistency and a sound basis for this year's campaign. However, stretching the championship towards the business end of the season is no longer anywhere nearly enough to satisfy a county for whom returning home as All-Ireland champions in late September is the only cure for decades of pain.

Galway have won six All-Ireland titles since Mayo last triumphed in 1951 but much has changed since Sam Maguire last saw the Corrib in 2001. Galway's last Connacht title success was in 2008 and they have beaten only New York and Roscommon in the championship over the last three seasons. They have lost twice (once in a replay) to Sligo and once each to Mayo, Wexford, Meath and Antrim.

DISMAL

It's a dismal record for a county which is third on the All-Ireland senior honours table. Unsurprisingly, they are well down the betting lists for this year's All-Ireland title, readily available at 33/1 and not attracting many takers.

It's lonely territory for Galway, whose form in Division 2 did little to suggest an imminent resurgence.

"We're outsiders and, to be honest, there's little expected of us within the county," said Mulholland in what might look like an attempt to play the poor mouth, thus luring Mayo into a trap. However, the reality is different. Mulholland's comments accurately reflect the mood in a county which expects to be qualifier-bound by tomorrow evening.

"A Galway win would be an upset, a shock, for this is the team that lost to Sligo and Antrim in last year's championship," wrote 'Tuam Herald' sport editor Jim Carney this week.

Still, in some ways, this is all set up for the upset Carney suggests a Galway win would be. Publicly, Mulholland is content to play along with the underdog tag while at the same time gently piling the pressure on Mayo.

"Unlike us, there's an awful lot expected of them in Mayo and further afield. They could be quite easily coming to Pearse Stadium as All-Ireland champions. It didn't work out for them in the final last year but who knows how it would have gone if they made a better start against Donegal?" he said.

"The thing is that when you reach an All-Ireland final, you're expected to be really good again the following year. We just have this game in mind and are hoping that with so little expected of us, it gives us a freedom to play without fear.

"Mayo are probably thinking further down the line because that's the level they have been at for the last two years."

Of course what he wants to happen is for Mayo to wander over the margin into over-confidence and then hit them with a ferocious storm. It has happened before, not least in 2007 when Mayo arrived at Pearse Stadium in May as All-Ireland and league runners-up and as overwhelming favourites to sink Galway.

Result? Galway 2-10 Mayo 0-9. And then there was 2005, 1998 and 1990, seasons after Mayo had reached the All-Ireland final. On all three occasions they lost to Galway, suggesting perhaps that Mayo are brittle in the year after an All-Ireland final defeat.

Could that trend continue tomorrow? It's possible, of course, but for Galway to have a chance of making it happen, they need to raise their game well above the level which left them in the bottom half of Division 2 last month after winning three, losing three and drawing one of their seven games.

"It was a mixed bag. Our away form was poor with the exception of the game against Longford. You have to win more points than that on the road if you're to have a shot at promotion. We didn't push on in the way we had hoped," said Mulholland.

Ironically, Galway took three points off Derry and Westmeath, the two teams who were promoted, which suggests that they react better against stronger teams. And then there was the boost provided by the U-21s on their All-Ireland winning run. Galway carefully managed the U-21s who are on the senior squad, using them sparingly in the league as they pursued All-Ireland glory which was delivered after wins over Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Kildare and Cork. It was Galway's second U-21 success in three seasons, achieved in swashbuckling style which left outsiders wondering why the seniors have been so limited in recent seasons.

Mulholland is confident that the spin-off from the U-21 wins will have a significant impact on Galway's fortunes into the future but whether it arrives this year remains to be seen.

"Senior football is a whole new ball game. Winning the U-21 All-Ireland was great but you just don't throw in lots of lads straight away on the basis of that win," he said. "The ones we think are good enough now are either on the team or on the broader squad. Others will come through later but they can't be rushed."

The U-21s received widespread praise for the expansive style of their play – just like the 2011 team did when they won the All-Ireland – but can it ever translate through to senior level, where negativity is much more prevalent? It's a question that frustrated Galway supporters are asking all the time as they wonder if, in fact, the county is just too damn nice in a nasty world.

"Look, every manager will use the brand of football to best suit his panel and I believe that playing an open style best suits the Galway psyche," said Mulholland. "Of course not every team will let you play that way and when they don't you have to adapt to what's put in front of you and figure out how to beat it. While we always try to play as open and expansive as possible, we won't be naive about it either."

He's adamant that irrespective of how others have changed their style, it would be counter-productive for Galway to interfere with its natural culture.

"Good footballers will always win games," he said. "Kerry have been showing that repeatedly down the years. I certainly don't believe Galway would have done any better in the last few championships by being more negative or cynical.

"You don't interfere with a county's style of play just because of how others play. Galway lost for the last few years because we came up short. It had nothing to do with the style of game used. We are improving and I have no doubt that over the next few years that will continue."

For the first time since the start of the 1998 campaign, Galway head into the championship without an All-Ireland medal winner in the squad, following the departures of Padraic Joyce and Joe Bergin.

"It's different – no doubt about that. But a lot of the current squad have U-21 and minor medals. We have All-Irelands in our DNA and what we're trying to do now is to build on the proud reputation of Galway football with these lads creating a new tradition."

If Galway lose tomorrow, they will be playing in the opening round of the All-Ireland qualifiers for the first time since the new system was introduced in 2001. Galway's entry has never been earlier than Round 2 but now there's a real possibility that they are heading for the Round 1 action on June 29.

As a bookmaker, Mulholland knows tomorrow's odds don't augur well for Galway. Still, he also knows the reality of sport.

"Favourites don't always win, you know," he said.

How he would dearly love the latest example of this to be true in his native Salthill.

Irish Independent