Sunday 17 December 2017

July rivals break for border

Mayo's recent success has made Galway even more keen to emulate it, says Aisling Crowe

Galway's Shane Walsh
Galway's Shane Walsh

Aisling Crowe

FIVE mid-summers have dawned and faded since one of football's most intense rivalries has sparked a lazy July Sunday into life. Mayo against Galway in the Connacht final was one of summer's thrilling delights. Sibling rivalry over the Nestor Cup, the tug of war along the border between the counties over where the silver trophy would reside for the next year enthralled the neighbours and those outside the family doors. Tight finishes and last-gasp victories meant the difference between 12 months of pain or joy along the villages and townlands that mark the boundaries of these western giants.

In 2009, Mayo were on the right side of the photo finish, 2-12 to 1-14, but a year previously Galway got the nod from the judge. Since then, Mayo have danced in the summer sun, their September heartbreak in Croke Park providing compelling viewing of a different nature. Galway retreated to the shadows, hiding in the dark while their sibling stole the spotlight.

Pádraic Joyce and James Nallen are heroes to those who make the pilgrimages to Castlebar, Tuam and Salthill in rain and shine. Both men have brought glory to their counties and played their parts on that summer afternoon when last the green and red did battle with the maroon and white for Connacht glory.

They see underage development as one of the defining factors in the journeys which have taken the Connacht rivals to differing destinations. Like so much of life, the truth is more complicated than that. Galway won the 2011 and 2013 under 21 All-Ireland titles, whereas it is eight years since Mayo contested a final at that level. Although last year was Mayo's first victory in an All-Ireland minor football final for 25 years, they took Tyrone to a replay in 2008 and have regularly made final appearances through the years. Clearly, the well of talent in Galway hasn't run dry overnight, nor has Mayo tapped into a spring of skilful players but how each county has managed their young players has made a difference to their current predicament.

Mayo's All-Ireland-winning under 21 team of 2006, who defeated Tyrone in the final, form the nucleus of their current side, according to Nallen, and with a sprinkling of the 2008 minors they have provided the platform for this current success. Joyce is worried about the underage game in Galway and its impact on title ambitions.

"We need to get proper structures in place at under 14 and under 16 to get them developed properly and I don't think that's being done at the minute. I know that they are working away, and I'll probably get lambasted for saying this, but we are not producing. In fairness to Galway, when we do produce an underage player he is normally a special talent. When we produce a good forward, they are good. Shane Walsh looks like he is going to be the real deal if they can sort his injuries out," says the free-scoring All-Ireland winner. "The biggest thing in Galway I think is that we had St Jarlath's in Tuam as a huge feeder school and they are not producing the same footballers anymore. They have stopped winning Connacht titles. Back in our day, and not just on my team, on teams before that that won All-Irelands for Galway, there would be nine or 10 players who went through St Jarlath's but not now."

The college population is another resource that the three-time All Star thinks could be better utilised to improve the future of Connacht football in general, not just for the benefit of Galway. Joyce wants the county boards, NUI Galway and GMIT to devise a scholarship scheme for Connacht players which allows them to study in these institutes and gain their football education there too.

An increased threat to Mayo's monopoly is to their long-term benefit too and if Galway's tide is coming in, then that is welcomed by Nallen, who sees it lifting Mayo's boat along with the swell.

"Nothing drives teams on more than competition and it's definitely a requirement if you have sights on the greater challenges and the bigger competition, as in the All-Ireland series. It is important for good football ultimately that as many counties are at a good level, so definitely Galway have shown this year that they have progressed. They had a comprehensive win over London, which many Connacht teams have struggled with over recent years, and they had a good win over Sligo," adds the man who formed part of Mayo's selection team last year.

Issues of funding have also played their part in the diverging roads travelled by the two counties in the last five years. The Galway County Board has been amalgamated and no longer has separate entities overseeing the affairs of hurling and football. The Killererin forward acknowledges this process has been fraught with difficulties as two starving mouths compete for sustenance with both sides envious of each crumb fed to the other and carefully counting the morsels divided amongst them. They see each other as rivals not partners and the lack of resources has affected the team's preparations.

"You look at things nowadays in football and it's not just down to the players or management. The players do determine how you play, the type of players you have, whether they are good enough or skilful enough. There are so many things nowadays in football - there is backroom staff, the monetary value that the county board can bring to the team set-up at the moment is huge as regards teams getting weekends away for training trips. I heard that 10 or 12 teams have gone out to Portugal to train this year and I know Galway haven't done that because they can't afford it. You need to get that kind of value into it so we can prepare as best as we can. There are other things too. It just needs to have a lot more done for fundraising. It's not a cheap operation to get training sessions for full days or get away for training weekends. It is costly and if we don't do it, we all know that Mayo go away to Carton House or wherever they go and our lads don't," he adds.

'There is no switch that will make it all right and there is no silver bullet'

Not that Spartan facilities and lack of warm-weather training prevented Galway attaining nirvana in the past. The forward recalls togging out in a couple of empty containers along the side of the training pitch as they went on their All-Ireland-winning run of 1998. They probably weren't the only team coping with facilities that would breach health and safety regulations but sport science has evolved and what was readily acceptable in the past is archaic in modern football.

Nallen's Mayo career has spanned that transition from ancient to modern scientific approaches and he is firmly of the opinion that only when county boards, management and players work in harmony can success be achieved. Mayo's journey to the edge of four Connacht titles in a row has been a progressive one by each member of that trinity.

"It is a combination of players willing to do what has been prescribed and management knowing what is required, and obviously the county board have facilitated the needs of players and management. You can have great players but if you don't have the management and the county board supporting the set up, you are not going to get anywhere. You need to get it all together and sometimes it takes a little time for the fruits of work to show and that comes from improving the type of practice you do to ensure that you are maximising the time you spend and the reward you can get from that."

Although he is talking about Mayo's experiences, his advice could be heeded by any county: "There is no switch that will make it all right and there is no silver bullet but it takes a bit of time and the right players. You can have good players but if you don't have players who are willing to commit, and there is a lot of commitment involved to be competitive and successful as an inter-county player, and if you are not willing to meet the demands you will fall short."

Galway has suffered from summer droughts before, parched from the thirst while the favourite child splashed about in the Connacht titles that rained down on them. Eight years they went without a Connacht crown between 1987 and 1995, while in that time Mayo added four more to their tally and contested an All-Ireland final too. Joyce was part of the Galway wave that washed the country in maroon and white 16 years ago and he believes that these periods of provincial dominance are cyclical.

Bubbles burst and Galway stand poised to prick Mayo's, maybe not today but definitely in one of the tomorrows yet to dawn. It is what siblings caught in the heat of a summer rivalry do.

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