Damien Lawlor: Small steps for Galway to avoid slip into shadowlands
More involvement in Leinster would help Tribesmen's cause
Last July, with his side having thrown away a six-point lead against Tipperary to lose by nine, Anthony Cunningham came out to face the TV cameras.
Just 30 minutes earlier, it was Eamon O'Shea's job that had been on the line. Vultures were circling above the Cloughjordan man, waiting to swoop on the first managerial casualty of the season, but O'Shea's Tipp team produced an energised comeback to secure a first championship victory for their under-pressure manager.
"One goal changed that game in Thurles," Cunningham, remarks. "We were looking good, motoring well, and after that goal (Seamus Callanan's second) all of a sudden we looked tired. The drawn game against Kilkenny, then the replay, then Tipp, all within three weeks. We were drained."
In sport, the margins can cut incredibly fine. In a flash it was Cunningham's position with Galway that came under massive scrutiny. He had been in charge of the team since 2012 and impressed. But 2013 was brutal and 2014 average. As is often the case in Galway, there was a mood for change.
Most managers kick to touch when asked about their futures, but Cunningham was emphatic in meeting that line of questioning head on.
"I'll be looking to stay," he stated, as the hum of a 19,000-strong crowd departing the stadium eased. "There's a lot of hard work after going into this for the past three years. We have a good young team. I want to stay."
Seven months on, he reaffirms there was never a question of him stepping aside - once he had sufficient backing from his players and the administration. While names like Anthony Daly's were thrown into the mix, there was never an obstacle to a relatively smooth reappointment.
"Once you enjoy it that is the big thing," he says. "And then, can you bring development to the table? Can you bring winning to the table? I think I can do that. We have been very, very close, probably a lot closer than people think.
"It is something you love, really. If there was any semblance that you did not like it, or any feeling that you were not good enough, then you should not be here."
Keeping faith with Cunningham might prove to be wise as Galway strive to end a 27-year famine in the search for All-Ireland honours.
The county has a habit of changing managers and it has killed them off as a consistent force, instead producing a side that is mercurial and enigmatic; one whose form lines run wild.
Anytime they honed in on the Liam MacCarthy Cup, managerial change, almost inevitably, ensued within 12 months. To place such rotation in context, Brian Cody led Kilkenny to 10 championship successes between 2000 and 2014. In that period, Galway have had six managers: Mattie Murphy, Noel Lane, Conor Hayes, Ger Loughnane, John McIntyre and Cunningham. One Leinster title is the only tangible dividend, and that from the man currently in charge.
Galway hurling has been dragged down by internal bickering on occasion, the hurling board hasn't always seen eye to eye with the county board and at times rivalries between clubs have been allowed to become toxic and countless young hurlers have drifted away.
When asked if constant change held Galway back, Cunningham, says, "I thought over the years that was true. The likes of Noel Lane and those guys were given a short time." For his own part he feels the progress they made in 2012 helped him gain a new two-year term last winter.
His first season brought a provincial championship, they reached an All-Ireland final and while 2013 was dire, they at least bit back last season in some form, again bringing Kilkenny to a replay. "The feedback from the players would be very strong," he states. "We brought even further professionalism and new structures to the game in Galway. Definitely our gym work, our fitness levels and preparation are right up there."
With the extended term he set about remoulding the panel. Experienced warriors like Damien Hayes - who didn't start a 2014 championship game - moved on. Youngsters like Jonathan Glynn, Jason Flynn, Joe Cooney and James Regan are now driving the team in the absence of the injured Joe Canning, David Bourke and Cyril Donnellan. These rookies will form the fulcrum of the team for the next decade and hopefully won't go the way so many other Galway hurlers have in the past - into the shadowlands.
How many of that type has there been? Use 2007 as a snapshot and you'll find plenty from that vintage alone. That year Galway's under 21s beat Dublin by 14 points to win the All-Ireland. Just four years later, six of that Dublin side had pushed onto the senior team, only Joe Canning and goalkeeper James Skehill survived to make Galway's. And Skehill has since moved on.
Kerril Wade is just one of many fine other young hurlers lost. He was the key figure in the 2004 minor hurling win, provided the winning point in the under 21 final a year later and nailed 1-4 in the 2007 final annihilation of Dublin. But he's not on the inter-county scene anymore.
Neither is Keith Kilkenny (2004 and '05 minor hurling wing-back and 2007 under 21 midfielder), Nor Kenneth Burke (the 2005 under 21 captain), or Tadhg Haran, who played in the 2009 minor final and was top scorer in the 2011 under 21 decider.
Emigration, to be fair, always plays a part in Galway's struggle to hold talent. Rory Foy, for example, is now playing with London. Injury is also a hindrance, especially in the case of Barry Daly.
Yet, since Galway's last All-Ireland senior title in 1988, they have matched the number of All-Ireland minor titles (eight) won by Kilkenny and have also been beaten in a further eight finals.
Their under 21 credentials are also impressive within that same time-frame; they have won six to Kilkenny's seven. It's baffling why the respective translation rates to senior are so varied.
Cunningham rubbishes the theories surrounding the bitter club rivalries and the claims that Galway simply produces too many of the same type of player - nimble, slick and wristy but lacking in physique and aggression.
"I think in the 1990s and maybe in the Noughties, there were a number of forwards who came along at the same time who were on the small side. So I think that myth is gone. I think we have a good balance now.
"I think the other one is a myth as well. There's no doubt that the championship is competitive in Galway but it's no different to any other county, or to back in the 1980s or '90s. I think now these fellas are nearly too friendly with each other, they're going to college or they're living with each other or they're on the phone to each other sometimes. I'd definitely refute those points. Sometimes they're just coming from guys who have little else to be saying."
What is pertinent, however, is that Cunningham - and previous managers - have not been helped by the Leinster Council and GAA's refusal to allow Galway underage teams take part in the Leinster championships, denying them precious developmental game time.
This decision not to let them enter the minor and under 21 championships is not helpful to Galway, or hurling in general. Either all of their teams should be in Leinster, or none. It's not as if the westerners have dominated the senior competition since they entered it in 2009. Their only win was in 2012.
"I would like to see more of the Galway administration involved in the administration in Leinster," the manager says. "We are either in or out. Leinster needs Galway as much as we need Leinster. For the development of the game and down the line we need the inclusion of under 21 and minor. I think the Leinster championship has benefited a lot from having Galway there. It should be looked at as well.
"Also, if you take a Galway minor who has progressed to under 21 level and comes up, say, against a Wexford player, the balance is uneven. I think a Galway minor will have played twice in the three years versus 10 times for the equivalent Wexford player, so that doesn't make sense. For minor and under 21, the more games you have the better."
To an extent, Cunningham feels that Leinster are looking after their own patch and he can appreciate that too. "But if you are looking from the top down in the GAA - for the promotion of hurling, the overall mood cannot be parochial," he insists. "It will take a couple of years for the minors and 21s to come in. That's the way the GAA works."
For now he identifies the importance of a subs bench stacked with both quality and youthful vigour and wants a squad in the high 20s filled with competitive players who can come on and do a job for him. Players who can turn the tide for him. Maybe they lacked that against Tipp.
"When it is over, you see what you can improve on attacking-wise, how you can read games better. You look at every single thing. You go through your own preparation," he says.
"There was probably not much that we could do, having played Kilkenny and drawn with them and having to play again the following Saturday and then playing Tipperary the following week. Playing three huge matches in 13 days was too much and it also says that we need more guys on the panel. You definitely need to have 24 or 25 guys who are good enough to compete."
The year is young and he hopes their journey is long. Clare are in town this afternoon but after a successful Walsh Cup campaign Galway look well-drilled. An opening league win would be a huge statement.
By now Cunningham knows that a series of small steps, rather than a Hollywood-style victory here and there, would better serve them in making a big leap.
Sunday Indo Sport