Thursday 26 April 2018

Knives are out

Galway's Padraic Joyce and Keith Higgins of Mayo clash during last month's Connacht SFC semi-final at Castlebar
Galway's Padraic Joyce and Keith Higgins of Mayo clash during last month's Connacht SFC semi-final at Castlebar
David Kelly

David Kelly

Galway's last championship outing was ignominiously crowned by a fiercely waged post-match debate between selector Martin McNamara and chairman John Joe Holleran in the dressing-room.

Lose this evening in Navan and the conversation will, one suspects, be mercifully brief.

The stakes are that high; a year after Joe Kernan pointed his jeep north after just one unsuccessful tilt at the helm, Tomas O Flatharta seems certain to become an ex-inter-county manager should Meath justify heavy favouritism and home advantage.

Already, the whispers on the western breeze inform of a new Holy Trinity -- Alan Mulholland, Padraic Joyce and Kevin Walsh -- to take charge of a franchise whose lofty attitudes of entitlement have become routinely ridiculed with every passing summer of underachievement.

Meath's own outside boss Seamus McEnaney -- whose introduction was as fractious as that of his Galway counterpart -- faces a similarly stark exit should his side lose on their own doorstep; knowing Meath football politics, that wouldn't be short and sweet. Such are the prevailing scenarios swirling around this evening's combat: a tale of grim survival rather than a story brimming with intent. Where the past haunts the present.

Hard to believe it is just 10 years since this evening's combatants grappled for football's big prize; Galway were outsiders then, as well, and few expected that their second Sam Maguire in four seasons would represent their last meaningful outing in GAA's high summer.

Meath, themselves not averse to harbouring lofty pretensions these days with dubious justification, had also won two All-Irelands in that period, but the free-flowing teams helmed by Sean Boylan and John O'Mahony were soon facing extinction.

Puke football would soon supplant pure football. Galway and Meath, erstwhile aristocrats of the big ball game, would not survive the decade that spawned the monster of the swamped defences. Galway's predicament always seemed to be the most wounding.

"Perhaps we didn't adapt," admits O'Mahony now. "Galway's football was probably classed as pure football and then you had the northern teams who played what someone else described as puke football.

"I admired it. It was defensively orientated, yet brilliantly organised. But I often wondered how Galway would have done if that type of football had existed at the time when we were doing well.

"That is a dynamic that has been there since. I wouldn't criticise Galway for not adapting to that or implementing it, because Galway have their own style. But maybe it's just a simple fact that they haven't been able to cope with it."

That tonight's show is not the top billing on this GAA Saturday speaks volumes for the respective sides' lack of relevance to the broader All-Ireland canvas.

Yet, it's Galway's case that remains a particularly constant puzzle. A veritable convoy of underage talent keeps rolling out of the factory: three All-Ireland U-21 titles since lifting Sam, not to mention a minor title snugly nestling betwixt the last pair of U-21s, have incongruously sat alongside a senior record that boasts just one win at Croke Park -- in 2004 against Louth.

Yet, as keen students of their county's hurlers will readily acknowledge, success at one level does not always beget success at another; furthermore, as Kerry arguably demonstrate, the two are not always inextricably linked.

Still, there's a yawning sense of waste at how much Galway have failed to capitalise upon so much talent, particularly when production started to roll in such timely and seamless fashion towards the end of O'Mahony's reign and precisely when most of his warriors were advancing into old age.

It would have been natural to fret about the losses of such giants as Kevin Walsh, Sean Og de Paor, Gary Fahey, Tomas Mannion et al but when Michael Meehan, Nicky Joyce, Matthew Clancy and Joe Bergin announced themselves in 2002, those nervous soothsayers of decline would have been forgiven a sense of relief that their doubts would soon be assuaged.

Like the hurlers, there always seemed to be a naturally exuberant and exotic taste to the underage explosion; the wonder of that 2005 scoring double act, Sean Armstrong and Meehan, winning his second U-21 by matching his team-mate's hat-trick of goals in the dizzy final win against Down is case in point.

Instantly, they were dubbed the new terrible twins. Armstrong's injury problems have negated his impact and one wonders whether Meehan's own travails can see him past the hour mark this evening.

Defensive marshals -- from Gary Sice to Finian Hanley -- have buttressed the free-scoring forwards, but the mix still hasn't translated into senior success under a variety of senior managers since O'Mahony's departure in 2004.

Prescient observers knew then that Tyrone had peremptorily served notice on Galway as a serious summer fixture, and sapped O'Mahony's willingness to inculcate the stylistic changes necessary to challenge the changed order.

Kerry, as Kerry do, did adapt. Galway, whether with Peter Ford's ascetic style or Liam Sammon's enlightened approach, remained stuck in the slipstream. By the time they met Meath again in championship fare in 2007, Galway's defeat confirmed their irrelevance; in contrast, Meath's ability to reinvent via the qualifiers has regularly franked their spirit.

Galway, still so reliant on Padraic Joyce, whose devotion contrasts starkly with those who remain aloof from the panel, appear as flummoxed as ever in negotiating their supposed riches, as evidenced by last month's eccentric selections and sideline switches.

While Meath can always be relied upon to maximise the most from often limited talents, Galway's unique ability to waste the country's most glittering resources is something to behold.

"What they want this weekend is a big performance because they didn't get that in Castlebar," says O'Mahony. "That's all they can aspire to. The hurlers showed last weekend how to deal with adversity and perhaps the footballers can take a leaf out of their book."

One big performance. Perennially disenchanted Galway folk will know not to hold their breath. The knives and P45s are already being prepared.

Irish Independent

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