Sunday 15 September 2019

Colm Keys: 'New Galway manager will inherit a team on the rise'

After Walsh restored pride to the Tribe, potential exists for the county to hit big-time again with right manager

Kevin Walsh has called time on his Galway reign. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Kevin Walsh has called time on his Galway reign. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When Kevin Walsh took over as Galway football manager in late 2014, the county were just above the waterline in Division 2 of the Allianz League with five points. Only their head-to-head against Armagh in their sixth-round meeting spared them from the drop.

They hadn't beaten Mayo in a Connacht Championship game in the previous six years, losing the 2011, 2013 and 2014 clashes by a cumulative margin of 30 points as their neighbours, energised by manager James Horan's arrival, exercised total control over them.

Walsh would lose his first championship meeting with Mayo in 2015, a Connacht semi-final, and his last, that fourth-round qualifier defeat at the Gaelic Grounds in early July.

However, in between he had a record to be very satisfied with - three successive wins in the province, from 2016 to 2018. Stephen Rochford - a man some would now like to see replace Walsh - couldn't figure out a way for his Mayo teams to get more than 12 scores against them.

Between Connacht league, National League and championship, Mayo did not get the better of Walsh's Galway in seven successive meetings until finally breaking free from the chains in Limerick.

In that sequence of games, Mayo didn't manage to break that 12-score barrier until their 2-13 just over eight weeks ago.

Their league status also improved. Promotion to Division 1 in 2017 was followed by two seasons in the top flight where they claimed more regulation points than any other team, including Dublin - nine wins and a draw giving them the edge over the champions' eights wins and a draw in 2018 and 2019.

That may not amount to much in the greater scheme of things, but it did underline a level of consistency.

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Walsh brought pragmatism to Galway football in his five years. For some, he brought too much of it, often striking the balance between the shape and structure he felt was needed to move forward, and the type of attacking football that their support felt they were entitled to see.

Corofin won three from five All-Ireland club titles - 2015, 2018 and 2019 - in such impressive style, but with time overlaps and different playing styles, proper integration was always challenging.

This year Galway were beset by injuries that really hurt, none more so than their captain Damien Comer, who fractured a bone in his ankle playing a charity soccer game on St Stephen's Day. He didn't have it completely diagnosed until early March and didn't play competitively until being thrown in at the deep end during the Mayo defeat.

Comer had really troubled defences during their run to the 2018 league final and All-Ireland semi-final, his power causing so much chaos. Without him in 2019, Galway just didn't pose the same threat.

Cillian McDaid returned from a year in AFL, but he too had an abbreviated season with a foot injury, while Declan Kyne, Ciaran Duggan and of course Paul Conroy - who was laid up for almost 11 months with two broken legs from the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Kerry - all missed large chunks of the season.

Walsh will have agonised long and hard since the Mayo defeat about staying on, knowing the impact these losses had and the potential that is there. In his parting statement he said he "emphatically believe(s) there are great things to come for Galway football", pointing to his objectives at the outset of making Galway more competitive and leaving it in a better place. On both fronts, he succeeded.

But in a county like it, the demand for more and for it to happen quicker will always be there. Two Connacht titles could easily have been three, and one All-Ireland semi-final appearance felt like it could have been more.

It's a vacancy that will draw a lot of interest and will now run parallel with the search for a new Galway hurling manager. It appears that Walsh's reasons for not seeking a sixth year are different to those that triggered Micheál Donoghue's exit two weeks ago, even though the initial omission of part of his statement focusing on structures and expertise on the Galway GAA website yesterday was strange to say the least. By last night, that section of his statement had been restored.

Inevitably, Padraic Joyce will be a focus of interest as a successor, having taken on the U-20 job and winning a Connacht title with John Divilly as coach this year.

Rochford's stewardship of Corofin in 2015, when current manager Kevin O'Brien was with him, will put him in the frame, but on Monday night he was ratified to coach Donegal for another year, alongside manager Declan Bonner. Rochford would have known about a potential vacancy in Galway for a few weeks now and could have positioned himself for it, but clearly his work is with Donegal for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, Anthony Cunningham is unlikely to uproot from Roscommon. Galway's reach outside the county for a candidate may be curtailed by financial constraints.

With Corofin's success, two recent provincial U-21/U-20 titles, and back-to-back All-Ireland minor final appearances, Galway football should take an upward curve over the next five years. It's a big brand, a county that should be competing on all fronts.

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