Galway's case for defence - Striking the right balance has never been more important for this emerging team
When Damien Comer met Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor with a thundering shoulder, knocking Mayo's then Young Footballer of the Year backwards and to the floor before turning over possession in injury-time during Galway's 2017 Connacht semi-final triumph in Salthill, it was a moment that really illustrated the team's development under Kevin Walsh.
Three years earlier a young Comer, in his debut year, was on the receiving end of a Colm Boyle special, spinning him in the early stages of the 2014 Connacht final. The impact eventually forced him off and nothing told Galway football more about the journey they had to travel.
They conceded three goals that afternoon in Castlebar, having shipped four the previous year in Salthill, as they lost by 17 points, a low point in their long history with their neighbours.
When they returned to Salthill a year later, they conceded just one goal in defeat. Three more championship meetings with Mayo since have coughed up one further goal (2017) and never more than 12 scores (0-12, 1-11 and 0-12 again this year).
Parsimony has been the watchword, not just in those games with Mayo. Making themselves more difficult to break down and more aggressive has been carefully cultivated in each of the last four years.
But for former full-back Finian Hanley, who retired late last year after 14 years of service, the greatest difference he has seen has been from last year to this. At times, he doesn't recognise the same players he shared a dressing-room with 12 months earlier, such has been the shift in attitude and approach.
"It's been unbelievable," he admitted. "From December to now I'm seeing different players to what I knew, I'm seeing a different attitude and there is way more fight there, more aggression that bit of cuteness.
"Last year we were shipping some big scores even though we were winning games. Derry came to Tuam and scored 2-10 in a half. That's not there any more because we are the aggressors and we seem to be moving up in that bracket. I don't even recognise some of the players, if I'm honest, from last year."
Hanley credits the coaching of Walsh for much of the defensive evolution over four years, the forensic, mechanical detail he applies to individuals even more important to the collective approach.
"Kevin is big into coaching and has a massive basketball background and, from day one, that was his ethos, to bring in those little nuggets into Galway's game on an individual basis in the first year, getting lads positionally right, in the way they defend, in the way they mark, in the way that they tackle.
"If you look closely at it you see a lot (of defenders) block out more so than going for the ball if the ball is kicked in. You don't see a lot of lads going to attack it, they'll find their man instead of going for the ball which is an unusual thing for natural footballers.
"We weren't overly defensive in the first year. In year two he brought more of a sweeper element, year three involved more dropping back, all the way up to this year when in the first game of the league, we had 15 in our own half in some of our earlier league games," he recalled.
They were still hit for some big scores, even up to last year, Roscommon's 2-15 and Kerry's 1-18 reminding them of old vulnerability. But for Hanley, attitude has been the biggest shift in his old team.
"Preparation has changed a lot. They're taking it a lot more serious. Kevin has possibly had a word with some of them in December and said, 'listen this is year four, it's time to step up to the big time, we can win the Connacht title but where do this team and management want to go?'
"Last year, if I'm honest, I still saw lads not putting the 'pedal to the metal'. We lost to Roscommon and Kerry by a combined 17 points. I don't see it as a coincidence, I saw lads who weren't really weren't up for it, preparation-wise."
In Shane Walsh he sees the biggest change. "You look at the likes of Shane. I'd be the first to get on Shane's case all the time. Up to this year, he hadn't really done the pre-season work and he's been six years in the panel
"It's this year now that he's really showing because, by all accounts, he has put in a pre-season, the first proper one. He has put his head down and it is showing."
The strong defensive shell was badly pierced by Monaghan last Saturday night and Hanley shares concerns about that performance.
The dilemma for Galway tomorrow evening, as Hanley sees it, is to strike the right balance against Dublin. He feels keeping Walsh, Comer, Eamonn Brannigan and especially Ian Burke as high up the field as possible is crucial.
"Ian is very good at moving sweepers, he's done it for his club, he's done it for years for Corofin. In my eyes is the best player in Galway."
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