Galway must keep focus to deny improving Derry
WHATEVER the outcome, the winner of tomorrow's All-Ireland football semi-final will create their own special place in history as the first team to reach the final, having been earlier beaten in the provincial series.
Neither Galway nor Derry care to be reminded about their respective defeats by Roscommon and Tyrone back in June which is understandable because so much has changed for both teams since then that they are virtually unrecognisable from the nervy outfits which leaked goals at an alarming rate.
The personnel may be essentially the same but the mindset is different, particularly among the respective backlines.
Galway's defensive standards hovered between juvenile and junior in the Connacht semi-final but they have stabilised so much in the meantime that the combined efforts of Wicklow, Armagh, Cork and Roscommon again have failed to unravel them.
Meanwhile, Derry have righted themselves after a turbulent period against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final during which they unusually conceded three goals.
It was the ultimate in embarrassment for Derry, who have always taken great pride in their defensive expertise.
It's ironic that both Galway and Derry beat their provincial conquerors in the All-Ireland quarter-final. It was also massively cruel on Tyrone and Roscommon who, in normal circumstances, would be meeting tomorrow.
Instead they must watch Galway and Derry perform on the big stage while they are back home wondering what relevance, if any, their provincial titles hold for this season.
Despite the great romance of Westmeath's season and the excitement of Sligo's surge, it was always likely that the real beneficiaries of the new championship format would be consistently high achievers who fell after mistiming an early fence. Once they re-mounted, however, they were far more tuned in to the demands of the toughening circuit.
Thus has it been for Galway and Derry. Galway's defeat by Roscommon told them that they needed to realign the defence, starting with the goalkeeper.
Padraig Lally had performed heroically in several League games but conceded five goals against Leitrim and Roscommon.
It's unusual to change goalkeepers in mid-summer but John O'Mahony and Co took the bold decision of promoting Killererin's Alan Keane, who had no previous big time experience.
It has worked out superbly for Galway. Keane has proven himself to be an excellent shot stopper and, equally importantly, is a dominating presence in his square.
Prior to his arrival, opponents believed and with considerable justification that high punts into the Galway goal area could yield a decent return from a very basic investment. Not anymore as Keane is a big, strong man who fields comfortably under pressure.
The defeat by Roscommon also turned out to be a defining game for Tomás Mannion.
Well beaten at left corner-back that day, he was switched to centre-back for the Wicklow game in a move which few thought would be anything other than a temporary little measure.
It was a wrong assumption. Mannion is a fiercely proud and determined man, who was driven by an obsession not to let his outstanding career be blighted by one bad day.
He has prospered at centre-back, growing in stature and influence with every game and will relish the challenge of jousting with Derry centre-forward, Dermot Dougan.
As with several other Galway players, Mannion goes into the game with happy memories of the last championship clash with Derry back in 1998 when he successfully netted Joe Brolly, one of the slippiest eels of his generation.
Mannion and Keane apart, Galway's defence have had additional bolts fitted in the form of Gary Fahey's soaring confidence and the calm assurance of Kieran Fitzgerald and Richie Fahey.
Wing-backs, Declan Meehan and Sean Óg de Paor mix defensive duties with attacking initiatives and while Galway fans might prefer more emphasis on the former than the latter, they can't deny that de Paor, in particular, has contributed some vital scores.
Further afield, Galway are happier too than they were in the Connacht semi-final.
Michael Donnellan is much more productive at midfield than wing-forward; Kevin Walsh is back to full fitness; Tommy Joyce has grown in stature with every game while the return of Derek Savage has boosted every aspect of Galway's attacking play.
Padraig Joyce continues to be the inspirational leader up front and while the right half-forward position has been left vacant, pending fitness updates on Jarlath Fallon and Paul Clancy, Galway are in the happy position of knowing that if both are ruled out, they can call on the rapidly improving Matthew Clancy.
Derry's rehabilitation since the defeat by Tyrone has been unspectacular but hugely effective.
Whereas Galway went on a "Discover Ireland" tour in the qualifiers, beating opponents from all four provinces, Derry stayed at home in Ulster for most of the way. They beat Antrim, Cavan and Tyrone in the qualifiers with a victory over Laois as their only 'outside' experience. Even then, that game was played in Cavan.
They have improved immeasurably over the past six weeks and possess all the necessary ingredients to seriously trouble Galway. Anthony Tohill remains their anchor man but is no longer expected to carry all the responsibility at midfield where teenager, Fergal Doherty has emerged as a real gem.
Tohill be will be delighted to escape from the claustrophobic Ulster atmosphere where he is the regular target for spoiling tactics which must be terribly frustrating for him.
Galway will let him play but he will be kept very busy trying to sort out the Walsh-Donnellan combination.
Full-back, Sean Martin Lockhart, and centre-back, Gary Coleman, will backbone a new-look Derry defence who will be hoping to use the same restrictive game plan which worked so well against Tyrone in the quarter-final.
Up front, Derry have plenty of exciting options, including prodigious full-forward duo, Paddy Bradley and Enda Muldoon, who have racked up some very impressive tallies this year.
Paul McFlynn, Dermot Dougan and Johnny McBride form a lively half-forward line who will win plenty of ball but, McBride apart, they are not noted finishers.
Derry were odds-on favourites when the sides last clashed in the championship three years ago, only to be beaten all the way by Galway.
This time, Galway are favourites, although only just.
That's based on their greater championship consistency over the past few years, plus their rapid rate of improvement since losing to Roscommon.
Nonetheless, Galway go into tomorrow's game under one major cloud.
So far, their alarming tendency to fade out of games has gone unpunished but they simply cannot afford to drift into another valley period, similar to those they encountered against Armagh and Cork. If they do, they will lose.
However, on the basis that the necessary mental adjustments have been made to correct that problem, Galway look the better bet to reach their second successive All-Ireland final.