Sunday 17 December 2017

How has the west's greatest rivalry tilted so heavily in Mayo's direction?

Galway v Mayo used to be one of the great rivalries but has recently become skewed heavily in favour of the green-and-red, who are eyeing a six-timer over the Tribesmen. How has it tilted so heavily in Mayo's direction? Martin Breheny reports

Aidan O’Shea Picture: Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea Picture: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's a measure of the dramatic power shift in Connacht football that a former Mayo manager can mercilessly tweak Galway's tail the day before a big Championship showdown and nobody in either county thinks it will have any impact whatsoever.

James Horan unloaded himself of the view that the gap between Mayo and their fiercest western rivals was widening, that there's no energy in the Galway football scene, that their supporters would consider anything less than a 10-point defeat this evening as satisfactory and that the county is not doing everything it can to return to the top table.

That damning assessment comes from a county that's in its 65th year without an Ireland senior title, a period during which Galway has entertained Sam Maguire six times.

And yet, there's no sense in Galway that there will be any big reaction this evening, not because of a lack of pride or ambition but because the squad is substandard.

That they ran Mayo to four points in Pearse Stadium last year has done nothing to raise spirits in Galway, where the mood is sombre to the point of being resigned.

Quite simply, there's in a view in Galway and beyond that Mayo are now flying in a much higher orbit which their neighbours can barely see,

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Jim Carney, former Tuam Herald sports editor, Sunday Game presenter and one-time Galway selector, predicted two months ago that this evening's game "might be as one-sided as Pearse Stadium in 2013 when it finished Mayo 4-16 Galway 0-11".

He argued that Shane Walsh is the only Galway player who would get into the Mayo team.

Carney also wrote that such a sense of apathy had settled over Galway, there was little negative reaction to the failure to escape from Division 2 for a fifth successive year.


"Maybe nobody cares that a county with such a proud tradition won only two of their seven games in this year's League. Nowadays, drawing with Fermanagh, Armagh (a Division 3 team next year) and Meath seems acceptable," wrote Carney in the Tuam Herald.

"Losing to Cavan in the final round of the League? We only heard of the 'positives'. Has nobody the courage to say it like it is? There are no positives when you lose."

Inevitably - and unfairly - team management comes under intense scrutiny when a county like Galway loses power. It's as if the manager becomes responsible for the decline, rather than being a mere figurehead for the sad state of affairs.

Yet it was depressing for Galway supporters to read Kevin Walsh's comments about what his priorities were when he took over at the end of 2014.

"When we came in as management, there were two things we did strive to get. Firstly, consistency in performance - that every game we played without necessarily winning, we would be competitive," he said.

"Secondly, we would develop a team that when they walked off the pitch, you'd be hoping that at least there would be no walkovers."

It's an extraordinary reflection on Galway that one of its best ever midfielders conceded that avoiding a serious trimming would represent some sort of progress.

This, after all, is a county that this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the All-Ireland three-in-a-row success in 1966, a feat since achieved by no county except Kerry.

It's only 15 years since Padraic Joyce put the Meath defence through hell in the All-Ireland final, with Walsh providing much of the possession as Galway took the title for the second time in four seasons.

Since then, Galway have won four All-Ireland U-21, one minor and three senior club titles. Yet Walsh had "no walkovers" on his 'must do' list when he took over as manager.

Outsiders are amazed by the tailspin in Galway's fortunes, leaving them longer anywhere near the top table.

Third on the All-Ireland senior honours list and with a pedigree that used to be the envy of many, Galway is also the second largest county, geographically, behind Cork in the country. And while it's divided between hurling and football strongholds, the big ball would always be expected to produce enough talent to remain consistently competitive at the highest level.

Traditionally, north Galway was the most fertile football territory, with Tuam Stars, Dunmore, Killererin, Mountbellew-Moylough, Caltra, Kilkerrin-Clonberne, Milltown and Cortoon producing many famous names.

Yet when Galway line up against Mayo this evening, Gary O'Donnell (Tuam Stars) and Shane Walsh (Kilkerrin-Clonberne) will be the only two aboard from those clubs.

Changed times indeed, which perhaps provide a pointer towards some of Galway's problems. Nor has that been compensated for by the large, sprawling Galway city area which has only two starters, Paul Conroy (St James') and Eamonn Brannigan (St Michael's).

The closure of St Jarlath's College, Tuam as a boarding school has also been a significant loss. It had always been a rich provider of talent to successful Galway teams, most recently the 1998 and 2001 All-Ireland winners.

Padraic and Tommie Joyce, Michael Donnellan, John Divilly, Declan and Tomás Meehan all featured on the St Jarlath's team that won the 1994 All-Ireland before going on to make a massive contribution to Galway's re-emergence as a top force.

Galway's successes at U-21 level (they won the 2002, '05, '11 and '13 All-Ireland titles) were encouraging ,but ultimately, they did little to lift the senior boat. With their last two U-21 titles coming within two years of each other, they should be providing a solid nucleus of the present senior team.

Instead, only two of the 2011 team, Thomas Flynn and Danny Cummins, will start this evening, while Shane Walsh and Damien Comer (together with Flynn) are the only ones from the 2013 outfit.

Fiontán O Curraoin, who like Flynn played in 2011 and 2013, would be aboard except for injury. Still, it's a very small take-up from two teams that looked so good.

Kevin Walsh revealed that 52 players had refused to take part in trials or join the senior squad since he took over, another damning indictment in a county that really has lost its way.

It would have been unheard of some years ago for a player to decline an invitation to join the Galway squad but now it's quite common. Against a very worrying background for Galway football, the county's administration has to come under the spotlight and, frankly, it doesn't emerge well.

It's common knowledge that other counties in Connacht have far better structures for bringing young players through the system, which is inexcusable for Galway.

Whatever the background, the result is that Galway remain very much a Division 2 team, showing no sign that they are poised for an upward surge.

"If Mayo perform like they can, I think they will be extremely strong - much too strong for Galway," said Horan.

Whoever thought they would hear a Mayo man utter those words about Galway?

But then, who would have thought when Galway won the 2001 All-Ireland that 15 years later, they would not only be waiting for their next title but that they would have failed to win a single game from 10 outings in Croke Park?

And yet, there's hope in the Galway camp that things can be turned around.

They ran Mayo close enough last year, leaving Walsh hopeful that the progress will be maintained this summer. There are few enough in Galway who share his optimism.

Irish Independent

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