I T took an opening-day league defeat to Monaghan to finally bring the hidden cracks in Galway football into full view.
Last week two established players walked away after seven weeks of pre-season training. Kieran Fitzgerald's departure was most surprising. The 30-year-old won an All-Ireland medal and All Star award in his debut season in 2001. Since then, he hasn't enjoyed one victory in Croke Park; a fair reflection on his county's tumbling fortunes.
Having been troubled with a tendon injury, eyebrows were raised at his selection against Monaghan. He struggled badly against Conor McManus and was replaced. Seven days later, he was gone altogether.
Niall Coleman was another regular. With the team struggling in midfield, his area of expertise, he was drafted into the attack at Clones, out of position. During the FBD league, he'd been deployed at centre-back. A self-employed carpenter based in Dublin, he also decided to quit, on the same day as Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald cited his ongoing struggle with injuries, while Coleman referred to work commitments. But both players must have known their withdrawals would have fuelled the fire. That they have decided to withdraw at this early stage, with a long road still ahead, is worrying for any Galway supporter. But in a camp where morale is low, further dark clouds are looming.
There's still no sign of the team's talisman Pádraic Joyce or his cousin, Nickey, both of whom might not play this year. Damien Burke, a quiet, reliable figurehead, is still away, while Michael Meehan will miss most of the league with an ankle injury. His brother Declan called time on his illustrious career before Christmas.
Even at this early stage, new manager Tomás ó Flatharta must be wondering what sort of a mess he's landed in. And if anyone thinks the problems lie solely at his door, they are mistaken.
The truth is that Galway football has deteriorated slowly since that last All-Ireland win. Outside of Connacht they haven't won in six years -- their last victory came against Louth at Parnell Park in the 2004 championship. Ten out of the last 12 Connacht senior schools titles have been claimed by Galway outfits, but little of this success has been transferred to county teams. They've landed just one of the last five Connacht minor titles and only one of the last eight Connacht under 21 titles, a disappointing return. They did claim the 2007 All-Ireland minor title but only two players have progressed from that squad, while local expectations are low for last year's defeated All-Ireland semi-finalists.
"It's really worrying to see how far we've fallen, the wheels have really come off but now we need to do something about it," former captain Ray Silke says. "The overall picture needs fixing. Out of that 2007 minor title, Paul Conroy is the only guy who really came through. Colin Forde might step up, but the likes of Conor Doherty, Damien O'Reilly and Tomás Fahy were our best players that year and we haven't seen them since.
"What's going on at development level? Why haven't we seen guys that won an All-Ireland minor title four years ago? Where has been their development, their leap to under 21, their progress? It all raises questions about how the board helps players develop. We've declined so quickly; are we in the top 12 in the country anymore? Are we even in the top two in Connacht?"
ó Flatharta has tried to freshen things up, adding 13 players to an initial 41-man squad, but whether the quality is there remains to be seen. Understandably, he wanted his squad streamlined as quickly as possible to create momentum, but some players were college-tied.
"People might say there is more talent out there, but there's not," says Seán ó Dómhnaill, a selector with Joe Kernan last year. "The current squad features the best footballers in the county right now. There's nothing else out there."
ó Flatharta is Galway's fourth manager in five years. Maybe some players are wondering if there is any point in embracing a new regime, for in the wake of Kernan's brief stint the trend points to another short-term tenure.
ó Dómhnaill feels this is a real problem: "I'm coming at this from three angles, I'm a former player, former selector and a Galway supporter," he says. "I don't want to sound bitter about last year and I'm not -- we got one year in the job and Joe walked away because he couldn't get the set-up he desired. But the truth is that it took us seven months to really get things the way we wanted. The winter ban prevented any progress before Christmas and we only had seven fit players out of 45 after the holidays.
"We had to implement individual and group programmes, so it was only in summer that we were seeing results . . . then we're gone as well. That's no good for the players or morale. Four managers in five years? You can't really blame the lads for wondering how long the next regime will last.
"But the players have to take responsibility too. Most of this squad have won medals at minor and under 21 level and you'd have to wonder whether that insatiable hunger for a Celtic Cross is there. I know from working with the lads that they come in and train well, but we're talking about needing them to make extreme sacrifices here, like training at 6.0am, minimising the social life. They are all talented players but from 1-20 are they willing to work their asses of and tear up and down the field like Kildare or Dublin? There's no good in four players wanting to go that extra mile -- you need everyone. Some lads are quite happy to wear number 27 as long as they can be seen out with a Galway polo shirt later that night."
The managerial merry-go-round will have to stop. That's the football board's responsibility. They should also be focused on improving development squads and establishing an elite programme or football academy. The board does deserve credit for the refurbishment of Pearse Stadium, the upgrading of Tuam Stadium and a €1.5m training centre, but now they need to stop building facilities and start investing in teams.
They could do with an image boost too. Galway football was once a highly marketable commodity -- now they're struggling badly to find a sponsor to replace Aer Arann and Supermacs may have to step in.
Silke would like to see a Galway native appointed to bring a longer term outlook to proceedings. "The first thing is to realise that changing managers will not automatically change things for us," Silke says.
"And do we need another outside manager in the future? Sure, John O'Mahony was very successful, but can no Galway man do the job? If not, can we identify someone with potential? Nothing against Tomás or Joe Kernan, but we should be bringing in young home coaches at underage level and preparing them to climb the ladder."
The most pressing task at hand is staying in the top flight. Before the league commenced, they were 5/2 to get relegated but those odds have shortened to 4/7. A daunting fixture list awaits them -- away to Down today, Mayo at home, then Armagh, Kerry, Cork and Dublin.
The decline has been gradual, but Silke does not dread a fall to Division 2. "That would be good -- being in Division One has only camouflaged things. We need to be more realistic and refocused on underage development. We're likely to go down but I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing to rebuild."
Sunday Indo Sport