Galway has plenty of style but where's the substance?
Galway need to be more pragmatic if they are to turn praise into prizes
When it comes to what Kerry really thinks of Galway, Darragh ó Sé let the cat out of the green-and-gold bag this week and his brother Tomás gleefully whooshed it down the road.
"A quarter-final against Galway is far from the toughest route to the last four. You couldn't send away for a draw like that, to be honest," wrote Darragh.
Then, as is customary everywhere when commenting on Galway, he noted that they had "good footballers."
Next up was his assessment of Galway's current status.
"They will be good in a couple of years, or at least they should be," he wrote. It sounded a lot like 'live horse and you'll get grass,' which was timely during Galway race week.
In his Irish Independent column yesterday, Tomás remarked on how enjoyable it was to play against Galway.
"It's always pure football when you're playing Galway," he wrote.
He also referenced the Galway team of the late 1990s in a very positive way.
"That team had some of the best footballers you could hope to see, particularly with the likes of (Padraic) Joyce and (Michael) Donnellan. You never got anything foul or nasty against them," he wrote.
The appraisal of Galway by the ó Sé brothers typifies a more general view, which holds that the county produces "good footballers" who play "pure football." Every so often, a special group emerges and they win All-Ireland titles, usually in clusters. Of Galway's nine All-Ireland titles, seven were won by three groups (1934-38/ 64-65-66/ 98-2001).
That leaves a great many years when the "nice footballers" didn't deliver a whole lot. The harsh reality for Galway is that their reputation for playing skilful football has brought more praise than prizes. Class may well be permanent it doesn't always deliver titles.
Joe Kernan recalled in his autobiography an exchange he had on the way out of Croke Park after Kerry had beaten Galway by a point (3-11 to 1-16) in a free-flowing 2004 Allianz League final.
A Galway supporter tapped him on the shoulder and remarked: "Joe, that's how football should be played." He was Armagh manager at the time and took the comment as a derogatory reference to their style so he smiled and replied: 'yeah, but ye lost." Ouch!
Kernan managed Galway in 2010 and later wrote about how he got a big shock in the opening league game of the season against Mayo.
"I had heard so much about the famous Galway-Mayo rivalry that I was looking forward to a real battle, but it didn't happen. Mayo won easily and I was really disappointed by the lack of mental toughness Galway showed that day," he wrote.
It led him to suspect that all wasn't as it seemed in Galway.
"It's all very well being a skilful side, but you need more than that. Afterwards, I was accused of trying to turn Galway into Armagh replicas, which, of course, wasn't true. However, I did want to make them harder in certain respects."
The 2004 league final and 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final (both against Kerry) serve as classic examples of games where Galway contributed enormously to top quality entertainment, but walked away defeated.
In the Irish Independent, Eugene McGee described the 2004 league final as "the sort of big game fare we thought might be gone forever," while Vincent Hogan dubbed it "a gorgeous contest."
Four years later, Kerry beat Galway during a torrential downpour in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Once again, it was a classic contest. Once again, Galway lost, but got lots of praise.
"At a time when questions are being raised about the low standards that Gaelic football has plummeted to, Galway and Kerry stuck rigidly to a template that has always defined meetings between heavyweights with a tradition for playing the game as it was designed to be played," wrote Colm Keys.
It was assumed after that performance that the future was bright for Galway, but tomorrow will be their first appearance in a quarter-final since that wet Saturday evening six years ago. Even then, they are there as qualifiers, not as Connacht champions.
The perception of Galway as a county with a flair for producing creative players has been around for many years. Even Mick O'Dwyer bought into it, noting in his autobiography that three management jobs stand out as obvious targets for ambitious types.
"Any manager or coach worthy of the name would have to be excited by the prospect of taking over in Kerry, Dublin or Galway," he wrote.
The lure of Kerry and Dublin is obvious, but Galway?
"They radiate their own special aura and, from a manager's viewpoint, would always be attractive because they have a history of producing top class players. There's a natural flow to Galway's approach, which any coach would love, provided he believes in stylish, constructive play as I most certainly do," he said.
The affection for how they play the game may give Galway a warm, cuddly feeling, but what does it really mean?
Winning the 'most stylish' award is fine at Galway Races, but not in the harsh world of competitive sport unless, of course, it's accompanied by success.
And then there's the myth of how Galway teams expand, once they arrive in Croke Park. It may have been the case up to 2001, but, since then, they haven't won a single competitive game at HQ from eight attempts.
A draw with Donegal (they lost the replay) in 2003 was the closest Galway came to winning there since the 2001 All-Ireland final when they demolished Meath.
It's a dreadful record and, if the odds are to be believed, there will be no change tomorrow.
As usual, where Galway are concerned, it's expected to be a grand game, with both sides indulging their skills, but with Kerry adding the extra dimensions required to succeed at this level.
Galway supporters, who have grown tired of being patronised about how there's so much to admire in the county's style, would love to see a more cynical approach.
That may sound like heresy, but how long more will Galway continue to dance with the angels when most of their rivals – and certainly those at the very highest level – have regular briefing sessions with the devil?
Being happy-clappy Tribesmen may win popularity contests but won't do anything to persuade Sam Maguire that a trip to Eyre Square is called for.
The truth is that Galway are seen as a soft touch and while that's not all down to the current squad, they are the only ones who can do anything about it.
Could tomorrow be the day when they stand tall and make a real statement of intent as opposed to delivering another stylish performance, which again comes up short?
It would certainly be an appropriate time to shred the odds as this is the 50th anniversary year of the launch of Galway's All-Ireland three-in-a-row.
Galway beat Kerry four times in two years in 1963 All-Ireland semi-final, 1964-65 All-Ireland finals and the 1965 National League 'Home' final (1965) during a period of total dominance over the green-and-gold.
"We just had a thing over Kerry at the time. We always felt we could beat them. They played nice football, which suited us," said three-in-a-row goalkeeper, Johnny Geraghty last month.
Nice football? Now it's Galway's turn and it is proving as unsuccessful as it was for Kerry half a century ago.