Tomás Ó Sé: Have Galway got the balls to drive Mayo into the ground when it's expected of them?
Mayo are the ultimate survivors of recent championships and, to beat them, you have to go to war. Tomorrow in Castlebar they face a team that has done that for two successive summers and won both times. But the dynamic of this Connacht rivalry has shifted. And now, with so much expectation on their shoulders, can Galway do it again?
I've been thinking about Galway this week and how the stereotyping of counties has a habit of slipping into easy cliché.
Dublin, naturally, have become all things to all people today. Kerry? Cute hoors I suppose who always reckon they have a shot. Tyrone? Hard, meticulous, unsmiling. Mayo? A tough, defiant shower, forever refusing to die. You'll get the drift. Subconsciously, we have them all labelled, pigeon-holed.
Monaghan? Over-achievers. Cork? Under-achievers. Tipperary? Boxing above their weight.
And the number of times I've heard Galway footballers dismissed across the years as "nice, but lacking a killer edge" has never ceased to amaze me. Because it's a description that doesn't tie in with anything I've personally encountered with the Tribesmen. Certainly the team that we in Kerry came to know through the late Nineties, early Noughties wouldn't ever have been mistaken for a bunch of altar boys.
So this modern idea of Galway as lovely ball players who, maybe, just lacked the ultimate hardness...are you kidding me? That team won All-Irelands in 1998 and 2001 and they'd eat you without salt if you were ever caught off guard.
Not dirty mind, not for a minute.
But there was an edge to that group, to the likes of Seán óg de Paor, Declan Meehan, John Divilly, Kevin Walsh, Michael Donnellan and Pádraic Joyce. When I remember them, it's not so much their footballing ability that stays with me. It's their toughness. Their absolute will to win.
I'll always remember heading up to the players' lounge in Croke Park after we'd beaten them in the 2000 All-Ireland final replay. Hardly in the door, I walked into pretty much the entire Galway panel and there, standing directly in front of me? De Paor.
We were both Gaeilgeoirí and, accordingly, I imagined that might give us a connection.
So I started making a little small talk, as gaeilge and, soon enough, it became about as uncomfortable a social situation as I've ever found myself in. It wasn't that de Paor was choosing to be ignorant, anything but. He was just speechless with the frustration of losing and had no stomach for politeness now.
It was like trying to communicate with a shadow.
Realising I'd hit a hit a stone wall in the conversation, I just slipped away, not even attempting to complete whatever sentence I was running aground with. Seán óg didn't want my company, didn't want anybody's company at that moment. And I could respect that.
Because, if it was up to me, I'd have been away down the town already, looking for my own space. That was my form. I wouldn't even stay with the team at all. After a defeat especially, couldn't stomach it. So Galway a grand football team, but brittle? I laugh at that. No soft team ever wins an All-Ireland and, remember, these men hammered an unbelievable Meath team in '01 that had hockeyed us in the semi-final.
Kevin Walsh was an absolute fundamental of that group. As a competitor, he was a dog, a huge monster of a man, but intelligent with it. It was never just fire and brimstone with him. I always reckoned Walsh was cut from the same cloth as my brother, Darragh.
And I'm massively impressed with what he's done with Galway this year.
There's something steady and progressive about how he's managing this team, identifying weaknesses, dealing with them ruthlessly. I believe the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipp and last year's Connacht final loss against Roscommon have been factored massively into the no-nonsense personality that Walsh is determined Galway now to bring to the table.
We all know that being a top player isn't a necessary qualification for being a decent manager. Nobody remembers Jack O'Connor or Mickey Harte or Seán Boylan before them as stars on the field, but these fellas understood management. That said, sometimes I think it really helps to have a man at the helm who the players know has come through that white heat himself.
Like when Páidí got the job in Kerry, he was exactly what the county needed. Just in terms of the place Kerry found themselves in at the time. The players needed somebody to trust, someone who knew exactly what it was to be in their boots, who understood the pressure. Páidí came into a dressing-room that had become far too familiar with disappointment.
I think Walsh inherited something similar in Galway. They'd forgotten who they were and Walsh has had that strength of personality to remind them. It was the same in the late '90s, they'd reached a point with their team where they needed to cross the line. To push away all talk of talent and potential and go prove they had the hardness to win.
Walsh was pivotal to them doing precisely that.
I don't doubt those Galway players hang on his every word now and it's clear to me that he has the two main ingredients essential in a modern manager. He can set up a team intelligently but, just as crucially, he can inspire men. The bonus is he's got the raw material to work with now, but the key is Kevin's street-smarts are taking advantage of it.
Like I don't for a second buy into this idea of Galway as an ultra-defensive team. That kind of depiction is blind to just how clever they've become. Fundamentally, the manager had to stop them leaking careless goals in big games and, by and large, he's done that. Those losses to Tipp two years ago and Roscommon last year will, I don't doubt, have sickened him.
The ruthlessness just wasn't there. Hence, I suppose, the perception of softness. Walsh couldn't allow that continue. And he hasn't.
So Galway play now with an almost insane work rate. But look closely at how they deploy it. If this is parking the bus, it's surely time to redefine art. I mean you couldn't but be hugely impressed by how they adjusted to a first season back in Division 1 of this year's league or, just as pertinently, how they then ran Dublin so close in the final.
Consider this: Galway conceded just one goal in eight league games, two of which were played against the Dubs. Only Monaghan managed to find their net, yet I don't know how many times I saw Johnny Heaney, Declan Kyne, Cathal Sweeney, Gareth Bradshaw or Eoin Kerin bombing up the field for them. To me, it's uncanny how similar they've become - tactically - to Dublin.
I mean, I'll be in Castlebar tomorrow, sitting alongside Joe Brolly who tells me that they're over-negative.
Well, I'm hoping to show a few clips from the league final that might convince Joe and the viewers otherwise. Clips that'll highlight this explosive transitioning game at its best, getting all these numbers forward but, just as quickly, having enough bodies back whenever the move breaks down. I'll highlight one moment especially, where Galway actually had four defenders inside the Dublin '45' and - just as you think they're in trouble on a turnover - they somehow manage to have three defenders back marking two Dublin forwards.
Too defensive? No, they're doing exactly what Dublin are doing. Just as the Dubs had their big moment of awakening against Donegal in 2014, I'm inclined to think Galway's have been against Tipp in 2016 and Roscommon last year.
Now huge fitness levels are implicit to the success of that kind of system and it's fair to say that Galway are now a super-fit team too.
I particularly love watching Damien Comer, a human battering ram with the stubbornness of someone who refuses to be beaten. He's like the goat who keeps darting for the gap. No matter how many times you force him back, he'll keep on coming. I'd say that fries the head of anybody marking him. They must be asking 'Is this f****r ever beaten?'
It strikes me that if Comer ever becomes more aware of the runners off him, Galway could become a goal machine. He's the key up front for them and making him captain was a masterstroke by Walsh. He's really rising to it.
But there's so much more to them that I like now too. I love the blend Walsh has settled on, that mix of hard men and good footballers. They've had their success at underage and farmed wisely from the crop. The likes of Seán Andy ó Ceallaigh and Peter Cooke impress me hugely, Cathal Sweeney has really caught my eye, as have Seán Kelly and Barry McHugh.
But my favourite player on the team? I love watching Johnny Heaney piling forward, a hard bastard, but loads of football in him too.
Then you've the more familiar names, like Paul Conroy, Shane Walsh, Eoin Brannigan, Comer and Seán Armstrong. Put them all together and, trust me, you have a dangerous outfit.
But the key to every good team in the modern game now is the quality of their goalkeeper and, personally, I'd put Ruairi Lavelle third in the country today behind Stephen Cluxton and Rory Beggan. He looks fearless to me.
Yet, all that said, Galway now have to prove themselves a true championship team.
Tomorrow, they face a Mayo side that looks on the ropes and, if Walsh's men don't drive them into the Castlebar mud now, questions will persist. Mayo are proven at this level, five-time Connacht champions, the only team to even come close to consistently putting a boot on Dublin's throat.
Yet Galway have beaten them in successive summers and my view is that Mayo cannot afford to go down the back-door route this year. In other words, defeat could be the end of them. Now, admittedly, I'd never bet against Stephen Rochford's men because they're the most defiant bunch I've seen. A bunch that has proved us all wrong so many times before.
Hanging But, for me, Lee Keegan is a huge loss and we all saw how they celebrated hanging onto their Division 1 status by the skin of their teeth. Derry and Cork should have beaten them in last year's championship; Galway and Dublin did. So have they in the last six weeks found something behind closed doors that can beat a Galway team much improved from last year? Can the Mayo forwards crack a harder, colder, tighter Galway defence?
To be fair, the thing that distinguishes them is that they never throw in the towel, never stop coming back.
And I do sense a real want from Mayo and Rochford to go the front door this year. Do they worry they won't make the Super Eights through the back door? Because, if they get that far, Mayo will be serious contenders again.
Galway know that, however, and Galway are in a better place than Mayo right now.
The only question is 'Have they the balls to make that count?' Because this is the litmus test. Cross this bridge and, in my view, Galway might just prove themselves the real deal. The bottom line with Mayo is you have to go to war with them and Kevin Walsh and Galway recognise that.
For two years running now, they've bullied Mayo off the field and it's obvious Rochford's men can't stand for that again. Which is why I think this is going to be a hugely physical game.
But it's a coming team against a declining one. And, for me, the coming team will win.