Sunday 21 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Galway have suffered at senior level for long enough

'Galway's knack of putting in the occasional non-playing seasons almost cost their manager the job he was forced to reapply for last year'
'Galway's knack of putting in the occasional non-playing seasons almost cost their manager the job he was forced to reapply for last year'

Eamonn Sweeney

It's injury-time. John Commins pucks the ball out, it drops at midfield where there's a scramble before Tony Kilkenny pulls on it and sends it upfield where Noel Lane is isolated against Conor O'Donovan. The ball drops about 30 yards out. Lane, who's on as a sub for one Anthony Cunningham, gets goal-side of O'Donovan, shrugs off his challenge, kicks the ball forward and then drives it first-time past Ken Hogan. Galway have won the 1988 All-Ireland senior hurling championship. And it's all downhill from there.

It's hard to credit that Galway's last Liam MacCarthy Cup triumph came in an era when you could still find East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia on a map of Europe, when the World Wide Web had yet to be invented, when hair was big and shorts were small. Their 1987 and 1988 victories seemed to signal a real change in the balance of power, not least because they were only the second team outside the Big Three to win two in a row, Wexford having led the way in 1955 and 1956.

Cyril Farrell's bullish talk about the Big Three believing they had a "right to win" (a phrase he used as the title of his autobiography) was understandable in the circumstances. Yet, like Ger Loughnane after him, he found that the pendulum inexorably swings back towards the traditional powers. The 1987 and 1988 wins momentarily banished the spectre of underachievement which had haunted the Tribesmen but it too was merely biding its time.

Yet if there is a county eminently well equipped to join Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork at the top of the game it is Galway. When you look at how things have progressed since Lane's goal, it's fair to say that everything has gone magnificently for hurling in the county with the exception of the county senior team.

In the 27 years since then, Galway clubs have won 13 All-Ireland senior titles. Their nearest challengers are Kilkenny with six, and the entire province of Munster has accounted for a paltry three. Galway have won seven under 21 titles since then, putting them joint top of the heap with Kilkenny. And the two counties are also top dogs at minor level with eight titles each.

It's these statistics which have made Galway not merely the most disappointing team in hurling but perhaps the most disappointing team in Irish sport. In most of those 27 years they would have been considered contenders at the start of the championship season. Some years they have flattered to deceive, other years they didn't even get around to the flattering bit. There are hardcore masochists who would blanch at the notion of becoming a Galway hurling fan. Their performances have borne the same relationship to their potential as the Labour Party's policies in government do to its election manifesto.

Today, for the sixth time in a quarter century, the game's greatest underachievers stand within one match of ultimate glory. And it is a must-win for Galway. Their five previous losses have been accompanied by condescending encomiums to the positives the Tribesmen could take from defeat, their status as a team for the future and the valuable experience provided by losing on the big day. But that turned out to be nonsense. Because another thing we've learned is that final defeat is so deeply damaging to the Galway hurlers, its effects usually ruin the following season.

Examine the evidence. Defeat in the 2012 final was followed by a disastrous 2013, humiliation by Dublin in the Leinster final and defeat against a young Clare side who usurped Galway's position as heirs apparent. The 2005 final loss to Cork was followed by a tame quarter-final loss to Kilkenny the next year. Galway should have won the 2001 All-Ireland final against Tipperary but the following year saw a quarter-final exit against an aging Clare side. And 1993's promising finalists were comprehensively beaten by Offaly in a pretty awful semi-final the year after. History shows that Galway need to capitalise on their semi-final victory today to avoid another fatal loss of momentum.

After all, their knack of putting in the occasional non-playing seasons almost cost Anthony Cunningham the job he was forced to reapply for last year. Thankfully common sense prevailed and Cunningham became the first Galway manager since Farrell to bring the team to two All-Ireland finals. He is their best manager since Farrell and that's why I think he will recognise the do-or-die nature of today's match. Galway may have a young team but the 2012 outfit was also regarded as one for the future and only six players who started that year's final will be there from the start this time.

One of those players will be Joe Canning. It says a great deal about the oddness of the Portumna's man championship season that Paddy Power have him as second favourite to win Hurler of the Year but only fifth favourite to get an All Star in the full-forward line. The first price reflects the presumption that if Galway are to win today they will need a huge performance from Canning, the second the reality that such a performance has been conspicuous by its absence so far.

Johnny Glynn's immortal riposte to Joanne Cantwell following the quarter-final probably reflects a general frustration among the Galway players, who tend to be seen as the other members of Blondie to Canning's Debbie Harry. No-one would have predicted that, (a) Canning would score only 0-2 from play in the quarter and semi-finals put together, and (b) that Galway would make the final despite this. His quarter-final was as off-key a performance as a major player has produced in one in recent years and though he was much better in the semi, and the mere fact of his presence created space for the other Galway attackers, Canning owes his team-mates a big game today.

None of this is to deny Canning's stature as one of the best forwards of the era. But he is spoken of as a great and it is on days like today that such large claims are confirmed. Shefflin, Carey, Whelehan, Keher, Lohan et al came into their own when the need was most pressing. Canning, who didn't touch the ball in the final quarter of the drawn 2012 final, when Kilkenny were teetering on the brink, has to show that he belongs in their company. He is in a similar position to DJ, who went into the 2000 final against Offaly bedevilled by the claim that he didn't do it on the first Sunday in September and emerged having scotched it completely. These are harsh assessments but great players make a rod for their own backs when setting the high standards by which they will be judged.

It's not just Galway but the game of hurling which needs Canning to be at his best today. Kilkenny's progress to the final has been almost surreally easy, just three games, none of which they ever appeared to be in danger of losing. Should Galway fail to bring the Cats out of their comfort zone today it will mean the champions will have gone through an entire championship on the bridle.

All the talk of a new open hurling dispensation which followed the great championship of two years ago seems misguided now. Cork and Tipperary will rebuild with new managers next year, Clare seem exhausted by the whole psychodrama of the Fitzgerald reign, Dublin are in transition, Limerick slipping back to old ways, Waterford not quite there yet. It had been a drab championship before Galway and Tipperary saved its honour in the semi-final. In the excitable aftermath of that game it was easy to think of it as an all-time classic. Yet should Galway fall at the final hurdle yet again that semi will be largely robbed of its lustre and merely seen as the day when the Tribesmen did Kilkenny a favour by clearing Tipp out of the way. We won't know the real meaning of that match until today's one is over.

Galway's best players in the championship so far - Mannion, Flynn, Coen, Whelan, Glynn and the Burkes - have one thing in common: none of them were born when Noel Lane put that shot past Ken Hogan. That lets you know how overdue a victory is for the county which is hurling's strongest everywhere except in Croke Park in September.

Time gentlemen please.

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