Thursday 13 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Galway not All-Ireland contenders just yet, but there's hope

Cathal Sweeney puts his fists in the air as Galway celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cathal Sweeney puts his fists in the air as Galway celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Exactly 20 years ago a Galway team which included current manager Kevin Walsh was overwhelmingly favoured to win the Connacht final against Roscommon but needed a last-minute point to scrape a draw in Tuam.

Pat Comer's great documentary 'A Year 'Til Sunday' shows John O'Mahony using the adverse newspaper reports which followed to motivate his team. "Fancy Dans," says the manager, his voice dripping with scorn as he spits out the offending phrase, "That's what they're calling ye. Fancy Dans." Grateful for the reprieve and stung by the criticism, Galway went on to win not just the replay but that year's All-Ireland.

In 2001, Roscommon provided an even more painful lesson when they beat Galway at the same venue. Once more O'Mahony's team regrouped, made some vital changes and became the first side to win the championship after coming through the qualifiers.

The Tribesmen's current incarnation might not look like All-Ireland-winning material just yet but yesterday's meeting with Roscommon may prove as significant for them as those past clashes were for their illustrious predecessors.

In 2016 and 2017, Galway were bedevilled by a pair of problems. It felt like their wins over Mayo were cup finals for a team whose performance levels subsequently slumped in embarrassing losses to Tipperary and Roscommon. In both those losses Galway wilted in the face of adversity. They seemed to feel sorry for themselves when things went wrong. Difficulty degenerated into debacle.

After 35 minutes yesterday, another humiliation loomed. Having played with a stiff breeze behind them the favourites were three points down. An enervated-looking Galway had been outwitted and outfought by a confident home side stringing passes together at will. Eamonn Brannigan's shooting touch had deserted him. Deprived of worthwhile possession, Damien Comer foraged out the field like a wolf forced by starvation to leave his accustomed habitat. The full-back line was run ragged by the Murtagh brothers.

It seemed like another 'one of those days' for Walsh's side. Yet they could not afford another one. Defeat might not spell the end of their championship campaign but it would surely deal a mortal blow to their status as serious contenders. There would be no coming back from this.

But there's something different about Galway this year. They're more Steely Dan than Fancy Dan. A new toughness was evident in the league campaign where they topped Division 1. Four of their six victories were by four points or less. Those matches, and their victory over Mayo in Castlebar, showed an ability to prevail in close games against quality opposition. This team knows how to win.

Roscommon, on the other hand, tightened up with victory in their grasp. In the third quarter they endured one of those horrendous spells when an entire attack plays like a golfer plagued with the yips.

Shot after shot drifted wide or fell into the arms of Ruairi Lavelle, every miss making the next attempt more difficult. A team known for its ability to score points only managed one in 35 minutes with the wind behind them.

Galway's road back was not easy. It was the 58th minute before they managed to edge into the lead and in the 63rd they found themselves behind again when Conor Devaney put a penalty into the roof of the net. Yet even as Lavelle was picking the ball out of the net this seemed an anomalous moment. There is a tide in these matters and it had turned irrevocably in Galway's favour. In the 13 minutes that remained they hit five points without reply. Roscommon looked a broken team. Galway had done to them what Shinnecock Hills did to Phil Mickelson.

The Tribesmen's two star attractions enjoyed entirely different but equally significant afternoons. The sublime nature of Shane Walsh's talent sometimes makes a rod for his own back.

You look at the blistering pace, the extravagant skills, the spectacular scores and ask, 'Why doesn't he do this all the time.' Yesterday the Kilkerrin-Clonberne star gave the complete performance everyone has been waiting for.

When Galway struggled it was Walsh who kept them in the game with his willingness to take on the Roscommon defence. A contributor of brilliant cameos finally took on the leading role and played it brilliantly.

Damien Comer, on the other hand, has rarely been as anonymous. But with the teams level and a minute of normal time left he surged forward, played a 1-2 and gave his team the lead.

Less than 60 seconds later he finally got the kind of pass he'd been demanding all game, shrugged off his marker and popped over a second point. You could hear Roscommon hearts breaking all over the Hyde.

Tom Flynn gave Galway a pronounced edge at midfield, especially after the Rossies lost Cathal Compton through injury, while Gareth Bradshaw and Cathal Sweeney combined ruthless defending with telling forays into attack. Yet it was Galway's team spirit in the second half which impressed most. The self-belief mysteriously missing in that tentative first half was back in spades.

If they are to challenge Dublin or even Kerry, Galway will need to perform for 70 minutes. Sluggish starts against the big guns might render second-half rallies irrelevant. Sometimes Walsh's men make things more difficult than they need have been.

Galway look a bit behind the top teams at this stage of the championship. But so did that side of 20 years ago. They never looked like winning the All-Ireland till they'd won it. Kevin Walsh knows how it's done. Fancy Dans might be a term of the past but there's plenty of carping comment out there for him to utilise.

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