Monday 24 September 2018

Tribal revival built on new harder edge

Newcomers make mark and raise opponents' ire

Galway’s Paul Conroy (left) clashes with Cillian O’Connor of Mayo, with Aidan O’Shea on the ground, as referee Anthony Nolan (centre) looks on during the sides’ league encounter Photo: Sportsfile
Galway’s Paul Conroy (left) clashes with Cillian O’Connor of Mayo, with Aidan O’Shea on the ground, as referee Anthony Nolan (centre) looks on during the sides’ league encounter Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Last November, at a media event to promote his club Claregalway's involvement in the Connacht intermediate club final, Danny Cummins teed up the type of Allianz Division 1 campaign Galway could expect in the months that followed.

He wasn't big on specifics but it was clear that they knew what to expect, now that they were entering the bear-pit of top-flight football.

'Current manager Kevin Walsh has been working towards a stronger defensive shell throughout his previous three years, not always to the best effect' Photo: Sportsfile
'Current manager Kevin Walsh has been working towards a stronger defensive shell throughout his previous three years, not always to the best effect' Photo: Sportsfile

Dublin, Kerry and Mayo have made it a permanent home in this decade, Monaghan began life there and after dipping down a few divisions for a couple of seasons will end the 2010s there as one of the most hard-nosed card-carrying members while Tyrone and Donegal had also spent the majority of their time in the upper reaches since the competition was re-organised into four straight divisions, based on order of merit.

Others came and went like Westmeath and Derry who, when they went through the trap door, had nothing to stop them falling all the way to the basement.

Roscommon held on for a year but then wobbled and went back down again, Cavan had a few months' exposure before dropping too. Both are back up now, surely hardened by the experience.

Cork began the decade as undisputed league kingpins but few suffered in Croke Park play-off games against Dublin as badly as them and by 2016 they were gone down, their recovery still to take flight. It's become a foreboding place for counties with little exposure to it and Cummins prepared the ground for what might be in store for them.

A few words stood out - but, essentially, they'd the need the "cutes" to survive the "dark arts" of the division, he figured.

"I suppose everyone chats about it but no-one really says boo about it. When I watch, say a game in Connacht, whether I am playing or just watching on, and then I watch an All-Ireland semi-final or final the amount of stuff you see going on, you say, 'How does this happen, or how does this lad get away with that'.

"But, at that level there is so much other stuff going on that is just part and parcel of it and you need to experience it. Maybe as a panel we have bits and pieces of it. As a full team, we definitely haven't got enough really."

When Damien Comer spoke in January the theme was much the same, the future captain seeing the requirement of a more "streetwise" approach. "I suppose you have to bring your own edge," he suggested.

Galway have done just that. And the grizzled veterans of the top division have responded.

In the games against Tyrone, Mayo, Monaghan and Dublin, their opponents have had at least one player sent off - Tyrone's Darren McCurry, Monaghan's Fintan Kelly, Mayo brothers Cillian and Diarmuid O'Connor and Dublin's Eoghan O'Gara - after various incidents and flashpoints.

Symmetry

On top of that, there is the curious symmetry of two maor foirne being charged by the Central Competition Controls Committee (CCCC) of minor physical interference, resulting in proposed two-match bans.

Dublin's Jason Sherlock chose to accept his last week after Mayo's Tony McEntee had been charged for finding himself pulling bodies away from a flashpoint in Pearse Stadium.

In addition to McCurry's departure in the opening game in Tuam, Tyrone also had Peter Harte and Michael McKernan black-carded while Dean Rock went with the same coloured card waving above Joe McQuillan's head in a match where both sides were virtually assured of final places at that stage anyway.

Galway have been no shrinking violets themselves. Of the 15 yellows dished out in the Mayo game, they picked up nine and had Paul Conroy red-carded.When they went to Kerry, Seán Andy ó Ceallaigh and Johnny Heaney were both black-carded while five of the eight yellows brandished against Dublin were theirs too.

As well as being impressive pacesetters, they've been the division's 'fly in the ointment' too.

But apart from the edge they knew they'd have to bring to their new environment after seven years away, their progress has been founded on very strong defensive principles.

For those first five wins, the only defensive change was made when Gary O'Donnell came into the side for promising newcomer Sean Kelly. Inevitably, the correlation between Paddy Tally's arrival as a coach over the winter and Galway's low levels of concession - 1-80 shipped from seven games is the second-lowest total from a Division 1 team this decade - will be made given Tyrone's miserly ways when he was involved with Mickey Harte's backroom team in their breakthrough year, 2003.

But Tally's involvement has largely been limited to just one session per week and current manager Kevin Walsh has been working towards a stronger defensive shell throughout his previous three years, not always to the best effect.

The concession of just one goal, at the end of the Monaghan game when the win was already secure, points to a system that is working well but will obviously challenge the football principles on which, traditionally, so much of Galway's previous success has been built.

Their counter-attacking has suited the pacy Eamonn Brannigan and Comer - who have amassed 3-20 between them from play - especially but the craft of Seán Armstrong when he comes on is still a critical ingredient to their progress.

They've made quite the impression since their return to Division 1 and the protagonists have all sat up and taken notice if the cards and suspensions racked up against them is anything to gauge by.

That they could come back and score an equaliser against the wind through Heaney when they fell behind to Dublin in the closing stages after leading by five points at the break was testament to the steel they knew they'd have to develop.

Dublin in a Croke Park final will test them in a much different way though.

Irish Independent

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