Thursday 17 January 2019

Comment: Steady progress under Kevin Walsh suggests Galway supporters can finally start to believe their eyes


Galway manager Kevin Walsh. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Galway manager Kevin Walsh. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It's 20 years since Galway emerged from the pack to claim their eighth All-Ireland title.

Current Galway manager Kevin Walsh and the rest of that panel will meet up in April to mark that success. Back then, Walsh was there as one of the senior members of the panel and around him John O'Mahony introduced some brilliant talent as Galway swept to Sam Maguire success, seeing off Mick O'Dwyer's Kildare in the final.

Walsh was there again when they'd chin a fancied Meath side in 2001. A team playing with no little style collected two All-Ireland titles in four seasons and also made another final appearance in 2000, which they only lost after a replay to Kerry. It meant that all looked well for Galway as they strode into the new millennium.

There was no sign of the dark times to come as they continued picking up Connacht titles in the early part of that decade. But as the 1998-2001 side broke up, we barely noticed as the Tribesmen drifted into football's wilderness.

With the exception of the 2008 Connacht title win, they barely caused a ripple. If anything the Galway footballers were notable for their ability to pull a one-point defeat out of almost any situation. From 2006 to 2013, they lost an incredible ten championship games by a single point. And from 2004 to 2013, they didn't win a single game in the qualifiers losing to teams such as Antrim, Westmeath, Cork and great rivals Mayo along the way.

So if Galway football supporters retain a sense of scepticism about the encouraging form of their side this year, then perhaps they can be forgiven.

Some have questioned whether they are going to experience a season similar to the one Roscommon had managed a few years ago.

In 2016, the Rossies raced out of the blocks in their first season back in Division 1 and recorded some big wins. They managed a first league win on Kerry soil before putting 4-25 on Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn in a brilliant display. However, they unravelled as the season unfolded and came to within a whisker of losing in New York. And while they recovered to contest a Connacht final, Clare would dump them out in the qualifiers. By then, the early-season promise was long since forgotten.

Galway have made a similarly promising start to this season, leading Tyrone from pillar to post in round one before winning by a point against Donegal in Letterkenny. Last time out they recorded a third successive win over their great rivals Mayo in both league and championship to leave them joint top of the table with all-conquering Dublin.

It's easy to make the case that Galway are simply a little ahead of the rest at this stage of the season and have put extra emphasis on retaining their top-flight status. But a closer look at their record under Walsh shows they have made steady progress each season he has been in charge.

In 2015, they finished fourth in Division 2 and lost to Mayo by four points in Connacht before picking up a pair of qualifier wins against Armagh and Derry.

The following season, they reached what amounted to a shoot-out for promotion from Division 2 when they travelled to Kingspan Breffni to take on Cavan. They fell short that day but halted Mayo's drive for an historic sixth Connacht title on the bounce when they won in Salthill with a team that contained five championship debutants.

From there they would go on to secure their first provincial crown since 2008. However, the inability to win big games in Croke Park came back to haunt them when they were beaten by Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

There was more improvement last year. Walsh steered them to promotion and then to a win over Kildare in the Division 2 final, their first victory at HQ since the 2001 All-Ireland final.

With that box ticked, they moved on to record a second successive SFC win over Mayo. They were beaten by Roscommon in a Connacht final but and underperformed in an All-Ireland quarter-final where Kieran Donaghy grabbed the game's only goal without a glove being laid on him despite the proximity of two Galway defenders.

They spurned some gilt-edged goal chances that day but in the wake of the Kerry defeat and the concession of 2-15 in the Connacht final replay, most analysis centred around their defensive frailties. Walsh insisted in an interview with Newstalk that overall Galway had a good year in terms of their rearguard but accepted they could have been better at the back in both those games. And over the close season, they recruited Paddy Tally whose St Mary's team which won last year's Sigerson Cup were a picture of defensive organisation and discipline.

Galway are the only team yet to concede a goal in the top flight. It might be too simplistic to lay the credit for that at Tally's door. Walsh's team were due some natural improvement as they picked up more and more experience but, so far, the signs are good, albeit Sunday's trip to Kerry should prove the acid-test of how far they've progressed

As ever, the championship will be the real yardstick by which they will be measured. Thy tackle Mayo for the third year in a row in their first game and that will tell much.

There have been several false dawns for Galway supporters in recent years. When Walsh took charge for the 2015 campaign he was the fifth manager in seven seasons.

But this time around all the indicators are promising.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport